Thursday morning under the Claiborne Avenue overpass started like any other: full of people sleeping in tents and sleeping bags. By mid-morning, though, the underpass was empty. Sanitation workers in white hazmat suits swept the cement, while others loaded tents and trash bags into garbage trucks. The people who had slept there last night hauled what was left of their belongings onto four RTA buses. Dozens more homeless people were moved from Duncan Plaza Thursday afternoon.
According to Martha Kegel, director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a homeless housing and services provider, they were headed to temporary housing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Under a city and state plan reportedly being finalized this week, many of New Orleans’ homeless will be housed for the next 30 days at The Hilton Garden Inn on Gravier Street in the Central Business District.
Kegel said the move is a huge step towards addressing the needs of homeless people during the pandemic. “It’s a miracle, it’s a huge operation,” she said, watching people board the buses at Duncan Plaza, in front of New Orleans City Hall. “This is just a wonderful day because finally the homeless people have a home to ‘stay home’ in.”
Kegel has been advocating for public officials to take such action since March 16, when she was contacted by doctors at the University Medical Center. According to Kegel, they said they were getting a large number of homeless patients with symptoms typical of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. She was concerned that the disease would spread rapidly among the vulnerable population.
“[Hotel rooms] are really the only option that allows them to isolate individually and allows them private bathrooms with which to maintain sanitary conditions,” she said. “How do you stay at home if you don’t have a home?”
The rooms are being paid for using a combination of federal, state, local and nonprofit funding, WWL-TV reported. President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration on March 13 granted Federal Emergency Management Agency regional administrators the authority to approve requests for “non-congregate sheltering,” making additional funds available for hotel rooms.
The cost, or the extent, of the housing operation was not clear by Thursday afternoon. Neither Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office nor New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office responded to requests for more details. A spokeswoman for Cantrell said more information would be released today.
Public health officials and advocates across the country have identified the homeless — who tend to be older, sicker, and less able to maintain personal hygiene — as a population particularly vulnerable to contracting and dying from the virus. Their transience also makes them potential vectors for the virus, leading advocates to seek private hotel rooms as a necessary intervention. Kegel said that while many people who live on the street are unwilling to sleep in shelters, they tend to be amenable to private rooms.
Homeless advocates agree that the move is a crucial step, but say that it leaves many people underserved. “I think it’s a huge underestimate of our homeless count. It’ll make a dent but it’s definitely not going to help everybody,” said Sarah Parks, executive director of Grace At The Greenlight, which provides meals and other services to homeless people.
The state is taking additional measures for homeless residents with confirmed cases, closing Bayou Segnette State Park in Westwego to house homeless residents if they’ve tested positive for the virus. The state may also soon activate the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center to house patients who no longer need to be hospitalized.
According to the Homeless Management Information System managed by UNITY, there were 451 people sleeping on the streets in New Orleans on Tuesday night. This doesn’t include hundreds more sleeping in shelters, or people sleeping on couches, in cars, or in some other temporary arrangement.
Shelters and homeless service providers are meanwhile struggling to accommodate both surging numbers of people in need while maintaining safety with little space and little protective gear. Ozanam Inn reduced its number of beds this week from 96 to 52 in order to maintain six feet of distance between beds.
“We have had to turn away a lot of people for shelter,” said Renee Blanche, director of development at Ozanam Inn. “There’s not really anywhere to direct them to. There’s not that many shelters that are open and the ones that are still active are at capacity, and at lesser capacity.”
The shelter is still providing to-go meals to anyone in need and has been giving out on average double their typical number. Other facilities have seen similar increases. Grace at the Greenlight has been feeding an average of 150 people at every meal, compared with their typical 80-100. The line at meal times, which usually extends just down the block, now reaches back four or five blocks as people wait at cones spaced seven feet apart. The increased numbers are likely due to both rapidly growing unemployment across the city resulting from coronavirus-related layoffs and business closures, as well as the disruption of normal routine for unsheltered people.
“Good Samaritans used to be bringing food to people under the bridge, that’s pretty much stopped,” explained Kegel.
Covenant House, a youth shelter, is upholding its mission to turn no one away, and is now caring for 212 kids, surpassing its record high of 162. As a result, social distancing practices have been limited. “Six feet in a homeless shelter is just not possible. I don’t have another building to move kids to,” said Jim Kelly, director of Covenant House. The shelter has begun keeping doors open with door stoppers to minimize doorknob touching, has made curfew earlier, and has given kids more water in hopes that they’ll use the bathroom and wash their hands more. But beyond that Kelly said there’s little he can do.
“The numbers of what’s coming our way scares me. We’re a vulnerable population and I’m very concerned that we’re going to get hit. I expect to get hit,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of praying.”