Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young released a COVID-19 emergency response plan on Wednesday to mitigate the effects of the new coronavirus on people experiencing homelessness.
Young said in a statement that not protecting the city’s homeless population would put the community as a whole at a greater risk to the coronavirus.
“The primary function of government is to protect the health and well-being of its residents, especially children, older adults and residents experiencing homelessness,” he said. “We must protect our homeless neighbors and mitigate their risk of infection the same way we do the rest of the city’s residents.”
“It is critically important that our community develops and implements proactive strategies to reduce risks for those experiencing sheltering and unsheltering homelessness,” Young added during a briefing livestreamed on Thursday.
The plan outlines steps that the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services (MOHS) is taking or has already taken.
MOHS on March 20 advised the city’s five emergency shelters about how to assess residents for symptoms of COVID-19 and procedures for consulting a healthcare provider, receiving a referral for testing and transporting a patient to an isolation site for testing.
The plan said that MOHS released guidance for hospitals on March 17 to determine a patient’s housing status before that person is discharged.
For people experiencing homelessness who are suspected or who have been confirmed to have COVID-19, the city has set up multiple sites where those individuals can self-isolate while they are awaiting test results or recovering from a COVID-19 infection, the plan said.
MOHS is planning to activate a temporary social distancing shelter where people experiencing homelessness can distance themselves from other people in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That shelter will operate at least until the new coronavirus has been contained, the statement said.
The statement said homeless outreach teams are providing people experiencing homelessness with hygiene products, water, food, guidance on COVID-19 and available community resources.
MOHS has given guidance and local and national resources to homeless service providers and community partners. Some service providers are modifying their hours of operation and services to limit exposure to COVID-19 for staff and people experiencing homelessness, the plan said.
There are at least 2,300 people experiencing homelessness in Baltimore, but MOHS suspects the actual number is higher because that figure does not account for people who are couch surfing or experiencing housing instability, said Jerrianne Anthony, director of MOHS.
Roughly 2,000 of those individuals are housed in city-funded shelters or other programs with congregate living, and about 30 percent are people older than 62 and have underlying health conditions, Anthony said during Thursday’s briefing.
Over the past two weeks ago, Anthony said MOHS has been working with public and private partners to support people experiencing homelessness who are at a high risk of contracting communicable diseases, such as COVID-19, and who are unable to self-isolate due to their lack of permanent housing.
After Baltimore City confirmed its first coronavirus case about a week and a half ago, homeless outreach teams shifted from outreach and engagement to tactical operations, Anthony said.
“What that means for us is we are no longer going into encampments and engaging with individuals, but rather supporting them and ensuring that they have access to the vital things that they need to sustain in their current environment,” she said.
Teams have been going out three times per week to bring supplies, water, hand sanitizer, wipes and paper towels to people who are living in encampments and are unable or unwilling to enter a shelter.
Anthony said people can contribute to MOHS’s efforts through the “Text to Give” campaign by texting JOURNEYHOME to 50155. All contributions will be used for COVID-19 emergency response efforts.
The plan comes after a group of concerned citizens wrote a letter to Young, City Council President Brandon Scott and members of the council, calling on them to “provide emergency housing and food protection for those who are poor, homeless and struggling.”
“Our neighbors experiencing homelessness must have the same opportunities to limit their exposure and maintain stringent hygiene practices, both for the wellbeing of every member of our community and to prevent the spread of a much greater public health crisis,” the authors of the letter wrote.
The CDC has advised not to clear homeless encampments during the new coronavirus outbreak.