We’ve all seen the famous names.
Prince Charles, Placido Domingo, Tom Hanks and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul are just some of the wealthy and influential people who have announced that they tested positive for COVID-19.
But don’t be fooled: The virus’ spread isn’t limited to the rich and powerful.
A coronavirus outbreak has the potential to devastate homeless communities, spreading rapidly among people who lack access to stable shelter and proper hygiene.
It’s a nightmare scenario – one that those who work with Schenectady’s homeless population say they’re working overtime to prevent.
At the City Mission, longtime executive director Mike Saccocio has set up a quarantine area where shelter residents displaying symptoms can stay, separated from the rest of the mission’s population. Right now, there are two men in the mission’s quarantine.
At Bethesda House, on State Street, people must undergo a temperature check before entering the facility. The staff now wears masks, and sometimes meets with clients outside.
These are just some of the changes these organizations have made in response to COVID-19, and before it’s over, they’ll have likely made many more.
“It’s a fluid protocol,” Saccocio observed. “Every day, the protocols are changing. … The good news is that we’ve come a long way in a short time.”
“Every day is different so far,” said Kim Sheppard, executive director at Bethesda House.
I’ve always admired the work Bethesda House and the City Mission do, and now I’m even more impressed. At a time when many people are hunkered down at home, city shelters remain committed to their mission of housing large numbers of people with no place else to go.
The organizations are finding creative ways to create more space between clients and reduce activity, in keeping with guidelines that encourage social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19.
This isn’t easy: The City Mission houses about 100 people a night, while Bethesda House serves between 14 and 17.
At The City Mission, the men’s dormitory-style shelter has been divided into sections, with no more than 12 men per section. Women have their own units, and thus greater privacy, and are staying in their apartments. While the men are now eating in small groups, the women have their meals delivered, and can cook meals in their units.
At Bethesda House, the cots where residents sleep are now spaced further apart – a change that required removing items from the shelter. The organization also provides more permanent housing to 16 people who live in apartments upstairs: Those clients have been asked to stay on the second and third floor.
Thankfully, there aren’t any known cases of COVID-19 at either Bethesda House or The City Mission.
But that could change as the virus spreads.
On Wednesday, the first COVID-19-related death of a homeless New York City resident was confirmed, and the New York Times reported that there were 39 confirmed cases of coronavirus among the city’s vast network of shelters.
Given the size of New York City’s homeless population, and the ongoing shortage of tests, the actual number of COVID-19 cases among the city’s homeless population is likely far higher.
One concern is a lack of direction on how shelters should respond to the crisis.
In particular, Sheppard said it’s unclear what shelters should do if a client tests positive for COVID-19.
“There really isn’t a protocol,” she told me, noting that many of Bethesda House’s clients don’t have a primary care doctor they can contact if they don’t feel well.
Another concern is the lack of tests for determining whether someone has COVID-19.
Saccocio would like to test the two men in quarantine at the City Mission for the virus, but said it hasn’t been possible.
Sheppard spoke of a need for more personal protective equipment. “Masks are running low,” she said. “Within a couple of days, they’ll be gone.”
The City Mission and Bethesda House are trying to educate clients about the seriousness of the situation. At times, it can be a challenge.
“We have people who are very agreeable about staying in and they’re not resisting anything we ask of them,” Sheppard said. “They totally get it and they’re thanking us. And then there’s the flip side, the people who are not getting it.”
“We’re trying to do a lot of communication,” Saccocio said. “We give clients information on what coronavirus is and what are the steps they can take to be safe.”
“So far, people have adjusted very well to it,” he continued. “People whose lives are often in crisis often do very well in a crisis.”
In an effort to keep residents from going out into the community in search of entertainment, Bethesda House is offering more activities, such as coloring books and games of Bingo.
“Prior to this, people (from the community) could come in and socialize, in the afternoon especially,” Sheppard said. “We’ve pretty much cut that out.”
Like everyone, Sheppard and Saccocio are making the best of a tough situation.
Their work – challenging at the best of times – has become even more demanding and difficult.
And it’s unlikely to get any easier any time soon.