Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

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So far, there’s no specific plan for how Philadelphia will protect people experiencing homelessness from an outbreak of COVID-19.

With one person who has tested positive in the city, the Philly Health Department announced at a Tuesday press conference that the novel coronavirus has officially arrived. Spokesperson James Garrow warned that people who are “vulnerable” should be careful, mentioning those who are elderly or sick.

He did not mention people living on the street, who are known to be especially vulnerable to communicable diseases. They usually live close together and have less access to hygiene, and the conditions of homelessness often give way to a weakened immune system.

Asked directly about this, Garrow told Billy Penn that people experiencing homelessness aren’t at much of a higher risk than the general population.

That’s why the city hasn’t outlined a plan yet, he said — either to prevent an outbreak, or to quarantine this population if it happens anyway.

The potential for an outbreak among unsheltered people is beginning to worry public health officials across the country.

“Unfortunately, we know that people living in crowded, unsanitary conditions are at increased risk for a variety of infectious diseases,” Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, professor of medicine and public health at UCLA, told The Los Angeles Times. “This is definitely a population…with other chronic medical conditions, so should they acquire coronavirus, they are potentially at risk for more serious complications.”

Garrow recommends Philadelphians experiencing homelessness visit a healthcare provider if they exhibit symptoms, just like anyone else.

Homelessness and addiction outreach workers worry that approach won’t be effective.

“We know that people experiencing homelessness are just not as engaged in healthcare services,” said Brooke Feldman, the center manager at CleanSlate outpatient treatment centers. “To expect that they’re going to come to their doctor to learn how to keep themselves safe, I think that would be foolish.”

Deterring shared drugs and ‘wiping down every surface’

In lieu of specific outreach in Philly, people like Feldman are trying to prevent the viral spread on their own.

Many of CleanSlate’s 225 patients are experiencing homelessness. Feldman said the outpatient treatment center is constantly on the lookout for COVID-19 symptoms. If a patient feels like they might be sick, she’ll provide them with a mask. If they have a fever, they can call in their prescription remotely to avoid infecting others.

The CleanSlate staff is also educating patients one-on-one about the risks of sharing cigarettes or pipes while a respiratory virus is going around.

“We’re definitely concerned,” Feldman said. “It’s scary to think how easily and quickly this could spread in the community of people experiencing homelessness.”

In Kensington, where more than 700 people live and use drugs daily in public view, concerns loom large for the whole neighborhood.

At the Kensington Storefront, facilitators have built in time during their workshops for hygiene check-ins. Roz Pichardo, founder of Operation Save Our City, runs a twice-weekly workshop at the community arts center — and she said she’s been constantly dispensing hand sanitizer.

“We’ve legit sanitized everything,” Pichardo said, “from markers to pencils to crayons. We’re just Lysol-ing and spraying and wiping down every surface, wiping down the doors every hour or so.”

During workshops, Pichardo said she offers guests hand sanitizer multiple times.

“This is at the top of all of our minds,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure it doesn’t affect us down here. We’re dealing with a lot of vulnerable people.”

Across the country, mobile homes and motels

At this point, few American cities have crafted homeless outreach programs specifically around the spread of coronavirus. But in Washington — the first U.S. state to see cases of the virus — King County has devised a plan.

The Washington county officials bought a motel where patients can recover from the virus in isolation, and they’ve installed more than a dozen mobile-home-type units where people experiencing homelessness can be quarantined.

Kensington’s outreach workers would like to see more public aid from the city — Pichardo said she’d welcome the delivery of a few cases of hand sanitizer, for example — but in the meantime, they say they’re prepared to handle it on their own.

The stakes are higher for Pichardo. She’s been diagnosed with the inflammatory disease sarcoidosis, she said, which can compromise the body’s immune system.

Still, Pichardo said she’s not cancelling her Kensington-based workshops anytime soon. The risk of isolating people experiencing homelessness and addiction is far scarier to her than the risk of contracting the virus.

“If anything gets into my system I’ll have a hard time battling it,” Pichardo said. “But we’re not going anywhere. We can’t abandon them. … All we can do is provide a safe space for people to wash their hands and sit in a space where it’s clean.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...