Kensington is the epicenter of Philadelphia's opioid crisis. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

With multiple Philadelphians testing positive for COVID-19, the city’s Office of Homeless Services has drafted a plan to prevent an outbreak among people living on the street.

The city is currently working to identify potential quarantine locations should someone who is homeless test positive, according to OHS Director Liz Hersh.

“Those experiencing street homelessness are at no more risk of spreading COVID-19 coronavirus than the general public,” Hersh told Billy Penn. “At the same time, people who are unsheltered, especially those who are chronically homeless, tend to have poorer health in general. They have less access to hygiene like running water.”

To help protect them, OHS will distribute hygiene kits — including wipes and hand sanitizers. The agency will also open more shelter beds to encourage folks to stay inside, and outreach teams will be deployed to look for symptoms, and to educate people on the street about coronavirus.

The national Harm Reduction Coalition recently released guidelines for people who use drugs — and the programs designed to care for them — to reduce the viral spread.

Some of the tips:

  • Don’t share your supplies
  • If you have to share supplies, then wipe them down with an alcohol swab
  • Prepare your drugs yourself
  • Wash your hands before using
  • Minimize person-to-person contact
  • If you’re having sex or doing sex work, use a condom
  • Load up on naloxone, if you can, since emergency services might be slow during a pandemic
  • Stock up on drugs and prescription medication
  • Prepare for a potential shortage

Local treatment providers have been following steps like these since the start of the outbreak. Brooke Feldman, center manager at CleanSlate outpatient treatment centers, told Billy Penn that she’s advised her patients against sharing cigarettes and pipes.

“It’d be helpful to have a team of folks getting out there and providing education to try to prevent people from getting sick,” Feldman said. “It’s really important to go where people are.”

Some nonprofit workers have been frustrated by the city’s hands-off approach to preventing COVID-19 from spreading among people who are homeless. Roz Pichardo, founder of Operation Save Our City, said she wishes they’d at least drop off a few cases of hand sanitizer.

“If a crisis like coronavirus were to hit Kensington, I don’t even know,” said Pichardo, who runs a twice-weekly workshop at the Kensington Storefront. “You can’t wait on the city to do anything.”

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

Said Feldman, of CleanSlate: “It’s scary to think how easily and quickly this could spread in the community of people experiencing homelessness.”

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...