In the weeks since the City of Austin canceled South by Southwest, the streets have gotten eerily quiet. The restaurants, bars, and theaters that were expecting to serve thousands of customers are now boarding up their windows. But Irit Umani, the executive director of the Trinity Center, a homeless center downtown, wishes that the city had left out the portable toilets that typically line streets for the festival, accommodating the hundred thousand attendees who flock to the city. Now that the Trinity Center has shut down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the homeless men and women who usually eat breakfast there have nowhere to use the toilet and, perhaps nearly as urgently, to wash their hands.
The center is still handing out breakfast and coffee in disposable to-go containers, and passing out bars of soap to its clients, since it can’t find hand sanitizer to provide. “We used to open our doors at 9 a.m.,” Umani told me. “About seventy people would come—so social distancing wasn’t an option. If you have seventy to one hundred people in one room, that’s the perfect incubator.”
As residents across the state prepare to quarantine and isolate as much as possible at home, 25,000 Texans have no home to go to. The Centers for Disease Control and county and state officials are pushing out public health messages that for the most part don’t apply to the homeless, advocates tell Texas Monthly. Where do you go to wash your hands when the few public spaces and businesses welcoming to the homeless shut their doors? How do you practice social distancing or quarantine in a shelter with beds placed a few feet away from one another? Are clients safer on the streets than in packed shelters? How can you access drive through testing for the virus, or even get to a health provider, when buses in the city are running infrequently?
Social service agencies serving the homeless are struggling with these questions across the state, and often solely bear the costs of changes to improve hygiene as they wait for coronavirus testing that has yet to come. Many of the clients that these services work with are already dealing with unaddressed health issues, says Carl Falconer, the president of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance. Those who are homeless have increased vulnerability to communicable diseases of all sorts. Some have weakened immune systems from age or conditions like diabetes and heart disease. And because homeless shelters are nearly always packed, communicable diseases can spread like wildfire. “This [pandemic] is new but some of what we’re looking at is the same precautions we usually have,” Falconer said. “With the flu, if one person has it, it’s always likely a lot of people will get it—or even tuberculosis.”
And the day-to-day stress of homelessness can further weaken one’s immune system. Although the risk factors of COVID-19 increase past the age of seventy, “We tend to use fifty as the cutoff because research suggests that the homeless show the physical characteristics of someone twenty years older,” said John Martin, deputy director of El Paso’s Opportunity Center for the Homeless. “That’s the toll that living on the streets takes.”
Martin says that in the worst case scenario, the clients the center serves might be safer staying outside on the streets than in a packed shelter. Health officials say that for social distancing measures to be effective, individuals should maintain about six feet of physical space from one another. At the Opportunity Center, which typically serves more than one hundred men and about fifty women every night, “Keeping people six inches apart is difficult,” Martin said. “It’s inconceivable without reducing our capacity.”
Increasing bed space is a new priority for social service agencies, many of which typically pile beds and cots into hallways and offices to maximize capacity for inclement weather. But that’s no longer a viable option. In response, some cities, like Dallas and Fort Worth, have opened up their convention centers for extra bed space so that shelters can spread out their beds in the hopes of complying with social distancing measures.
In El Paso, the Opportunity Center has implemented a “head-to-toe” method: people sleeping in adjacent beds are being asked to sleep with their heads near their neighbors feet so that, at the very least, the space between their faces is maximized. It’s an imperfect solution, but without more space, the shelter might have to turn people away—something it hasn’t done in more than twenty years of operation.
This has already become a problem across the state. In Houston, overflow shelters haven’t been designated as in Dallas. According to Reynard Wright, a board member for the social service agency SEARCH who was once homeless himself, this means there are more people heading to the streets as day centers and food pantries close their doors or limit their services. In Brownsville, the Good Neighbor Settlement House, a day center, has stopped providing sit-down meals and is instead providing meals to go. “For some people, we are the only place they can come to get food,” says Hugo Zurita, the executive director. The organization serves 300 low-income families through its food pantry and 160 people at its day center.
Centers still providing food service are often doing so at the expense of their already limited budgets as the demands of the coronavirus change the ways food can safely be served. At the Samaritan Inn, the only shelter in Collin County that serves single men facing homelessness (in addition to families and single women), providing to-go meals is eating into the facility’s budget. Samaritan had to purchase disposable containers and stock up on individually packaged items like cereal and snacks, which are more expensive than buying in bulk. “Another impact we’ve felt is that a lot of our food donations through big-box stores are not coming in at the same volume, because of the run on stores and the shortages they are facing,” said Rick Crocker, the shelter’s CEO.
Only 3 percent of the Samaritan Inn’s budget comes from the government, with the rest coming from donors across North Texas. While the organization is poised to weather the storm for this fiscal year, others might not be so lucky. Donations may dry up as more people find themselves out of work.
“On a good day, [these agencies] are overburdened, understaffed, and overworked,” said Eric Samuels, president of Texas Homeless Network. “The challenge has become incredibly steep.”
In normal circumstances, even if social service agencies struggle to meet the need for resources, spaces like public libraries and friendly businesses can provide shelter, and a bathroom, for a few hours every day. But with the coronavirus, these are no longer open in many cities. In small cities that don’t have daytime facilities for the homeless, losing access to those public places means losing one more vital lifeline. In Waco, shelters are densely packed on a nightly basis. The city’s two hundred or so homeless people rely on libraries and shops to charge their phones—and now that those are closed, support agency staff are having a hard time contacting clients. “The challenges have compounded in ways that we didn’t expect,” said Shaun Lee, board chairman at the Heart of Texas Homeless Coalition. “There’s a growing disconnect between the news we’re accessing and what they can.” That challenge is made more difficult because outreach staff in Waco can’t safely visit homeless encampments anymore.
Service providers will need all the help they can get, or the homeless population in Texas may find themselves at greater risk. But so far, it seems like financial resources will be hard to come by.
On March 18, Congress enacted a coronavirus relief bill providing emergency funding for everything from employment assistance to expanded (though not full) paid sick leave requirements, to nutrition programs like food stamps and school lunches. But not one cent was allocated specifically for health care, housing, or temporary shelter for the homeless, despite the fact that the health risk remains high for the population.
While some of the money may trickle down to homeless people through food stamps, this money can’t be used to purchase hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, and there’s increasingly little food left for the homeless to buy. They rely on food that can be eaten on-the-go or requires little prep, Wright told me, like premade tuna packets. But now, everyone else is panic-buying those items and hoarding them at home. “It’s selfish and irresponsible,” he said bluntly. And as restaurants have been ordered to shut down their dining spaces and only offer pickup or drive-through, this is leaving many homeless people without access to them. “Even if you have a few dollars, you can’t get food at a fast-food drive-through [without a car],” Wright said. “I know that, because I’ve tried walking up.”
In the meantime, the agencies that serve the state’s homeless population are left to navigate limited local funding or guidance from the state government. Resources that were already stretched thin every day are proving to be insufficient in a time of even greater crisis. “We don’t have very many options,” Falconer told me. “But we are doing the best that we can.”
Before the coronavirus hit, homelessness in Texas had been a hot-button issue for state officials. Last year, Governor Greg Abbott, for one, criticized Austin ordinances decriminalizing homeless encampments and took to social media multiple times to falsely link homeless people to crime. But now that times have changed, Wright has noticed a lack of attention to the issue.
“I have not seen the mayor or the county judge say one word about the homeless,” Wright said. “The government has really dropped the ball on this.”