This editorial was published in the Olympian of Olympia, Wash.
Here’s some good news: Keylee Marineau, Thurston County’s Homeless Prevention and Affordable Housing Coordinator, surveyed all local shelter providers and outreach workers and found only three cases of COVID-19 among our county’s estimated 995 homeless people.
Thurston County Health Department does not specifically track housing status of people who are tested, so it’s possible there are others. But the absence of any hotspots among homeless folks is a local victory.
Shelter providers, outreach workers and volunteers deserve thanks for this. They mobilized quickly at the beginning of the pandemic, and turned themselves inside out to protect our county’s most vulnerable people. Nonprofits serving families with children, young adults, and adults 25 and older all transformed themselves for this new era.
Shelters established protocols for temperature and symptom checks, spaced out beds, and amped up sanitizing routines. Spacing out beds meant fewer spaces in existing shelters, but with support from the city of Olympia, Interfaith Works was able to open a second shelter to make up for some of the reduced capacity, and to care for those most medically at risk. Within weeks, the county had a quarantine and isolation facility open in a local motel with 24/7 staffing.
The city of Olympia and outreach workers provided sanitizing supplies, masks, portable toilets and hand-washing stations to people living in tent camps. The Community Kitchen at the Salvation Army quickly moved from congregate dining to take-out meals, and delivered them to tent camps. Union Gospel Mission, which also provides meals, took out all of its tables and served hot meals on trays that people hold in their laps in socially distanced chairs. To space out shelter beds, they reduced their shelter capacity from 60-70 to about 35 people per night.
All of this has been stressful work — so stressful, in fact, that people doing it are included in a state Department of Health COVID-19 Behavioral Health Group Impact Reference Guide.
For frontline workers, the guide predicts milestones for behavioral health problems: Six months into a pandemic, it lists fear, uncertainty, depression, grief, and irritability. After nine months, it adds PTSD to the list. For people who are homeless, the list of expected problems includes increased severe mental health symptoms and psychosis, withdrawal, unhealthy isolation, increased substance abuse and difficulty managing basic tasks of daily living.
The guide also offers a stark assessment of the impairments of people living in tent camps even before the pandemic hit: “Unsheltered individuals, such as those living in encampments, exhibit much higher rates of co-occurring conditions compared to individuals in shelters. This includes rates of physical impairments (84 percent), mental health impairments (78 percent), substance use disorders (75 percent), and all three impairments (50 percent). Those working with people experiencing homelessness have risks associated with compassion fatigue and burnout due to the complex and chronic problems involved with homelessness.”
And it adds that “For older adults, physical and mental deterioration increases rapidly. Homeless adults in their 50s experience impairments equivalent to homed adults in their mid-70s.”
It’s no wonder that adding the fear and uncertainty of a pandemic to that load of troubles is hard on those who are homeless, and on the people who care for them.
So while we celebrate the success of those who are helping prevent the spread of COVID-19 among our homeless neighbors, we need to face the underlying emergency of homelessness itself. While the COVID-19 infection numbers remain low, the number of unsheltered people continues to rise. And though the weather is lovely now, a wetter and possibly snowier winter is forecast.
Last winter, Marineau said we had about 400 shelter beds. As of now, we are down to 197 shelter beds, plus about 30 more that will be available during cold weather. Since the Community Care Center in downtown Olympia has closed except for medical, social service and mental health appointments, there will be no place where people can go to get warm during the day.
Still, Marineau is not without hope. What’s been done in the past six months is a testament to what can be done when we really treat something as an emergency.
“I have faith,” she said, “that we will mobilize when there’s a crisis.” And COVID-19 or no COVID-19, the next crisis will come with cold weather.