KANSAS CITY, Missouri – For weeks after opening a day shelter for the homeless, Jae Bennett was pretty rigid about the building’s 37-person capacity. The last thing he wanted was a lack of social distancing to cause the deadly coronavirus to spread among a population in which many were in fragile health.
But then temperatures in Kansas City, Missouri plunged into single-digit numbers just over a week ago and stayed there, the coldest arctic blast of the season. And Mr. Bennett looked into the eyes of the people who were waiting outside because the stocky brown building was full.
“I said, ‘Go on, just walked in,’ said Bennett, who founded a nonprofit, Street Medicine Kansas City, six years ago. “What’s the option? Follow the Covid health code, or put them in the cold and let them die? “
Cold weather and the country’s homelessness crisis have long been a fatal mix that community advocates and officials have struggled to resolve. But this winter, the coronavirus added a dangerous new complication as cities and community groups struggle to keep members of a vulnerable population safe from the elements without exposing them to an airborne virus that spreads more easily indoors.
The math has taken on greater urgency in recent days as arctic weather freezes much of mid-country from Minnesota to Texas with wind chills expected to dip to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit in some places.
Officials in Ramsey County, Minnesota, which includes St. Paul, have set up shelters in a vacant hospital and a vacant seminary dormitory to better keep homeless residents away from each other. Chicago officials have used old school buildings as well as Salvation Army and YMCA premises to give service providers more space for shelter beds. New Life Center, a non-profit rescue mission in Fargo, ND, equipped an abandoned warehouse to expand its shelter capacity. And in Kansas City, where forecasts call for a low of minus 14 degrees on Monday, officials have converted the downtown convention center – the size of eight football fields – to a shelter.
With the closure of public spaces like libraries and the dining rooms of many fast food restaurants, homeless people have fewer places to warm up during the day or use the bathroom. Traditional shelters have had to reduce their capacity for social distancing.
At the same time, city leaders and advocates say the economic destruction of the pandemic has led to an increase in the number of people needing services for the homeless. While there is little solid data to prove that more people have become homeless in the past year, these leaders and advocates say the anecdotal evidence is clear.
Officials from the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness have seen formerly homeless customers return to the streets, said Marqueia Watson, the executive director. They also saw many new names on the shelter lists. And, Ms Watson said, social service providers have told them their phones are ringing nonstop with people who need things like rent and help with utilities.
“We all see the warning signs of doom that we look for when we talk about homelessness prevention,” she said.
Kansas City typically spends $ 1.5 million a year on homeless services, according to a city spokesperson. But this year, with help from federal relief funds, he plans to spend $ 8.5 million on programs that include paying for hotel rooms to house families and providing financial assistance to avoid evictions.
At the request of local activists, city officials opened a temporary shelter, with a capacity of 65 people, in a community center in mid-January. The number of people showing up quickly exceeded that number and city leaders had a tough call to pass.
“We made a collective decision to say, ‘Look, if any of these people were to spend the night on the streets, it’s probably a death sentence,’ said Brian Platt, the city manager. “If they get inside and there is a possibility of spreading or catching the Covid virus, there is a higher chance that they could experience that.”
They therefore allowed the refuge to operate above capacity.
This worried Anton Washington, a community organizer who helped lead efforts to urge the city to open the temporary shelter.
“It can’t happen,” Washington reminded city officials, concerned about a Covid-19 outbreak as neighborhoods grew increasingly crowded. He urged the city leaders to find a bigger place.
The city has seen some minor outbreaks in shelters and among the homeless. Nationally, sporadic outbreaks have led to clusters of dozens of infections, although the requirements for testing and reporting cases among the homeless population have not been as stringent as for many. other groups, such as nursing home residents and inmates.
After San Diego officials opened a shelter at a convention center last spring, very few residents tested positive in the next few months. But after Thanksgiving, more than 150 residents tested positive, indicating how quickly and spontaneously the virus can spread in shelters.
By the end of January, demand was so high that Kansas City officials moved the shelter from the community center to the convention center, Bartle Hall, and named it after Scott Eicke, a man from 41 year old who lived on the streets and was found frozen to death on New Years Day. The convention center’s population quickly grew from 150 to over 300 on Thursday, less than two weeks after it opened.
The shelter couldn’t have opened soon enough for Celestria Gilyard, who was evicted from her two-bedroom apartment in October after her landlord lost her Section 8 refunds for failing to make the repairs. Ms Gilyard, a waitress whose livelihood was wiped out by the pandemic as she received fewer positions and tips, couldn’t afford a deposit on a new apartment and bounced back between living on the streets and with relatives and friends.
Mr Bennett, the founder of Street Medicine, spoke to Ms Gilyard, 48, about the town shelter, and she has been sleeping there since mid-January.
“They’re trying to get us in every night and make sure we’re not cold,” said Ms Gilyard, whose 12-year-old son lives with relatives. “When we knock on the door they ask us, do we want snacks, hot chocolate, coffee? And they really satisfy us to the point that I feel that every homeless person really has to embrace that.
Ms Gilyard leaves her crib at the immaculately made-up convention center when she leaves each morning, with a burgundy blanket draped over it, propped pillows, and chairs on either side serving as nightstands.
The experience was so comfortable that concerns about the coronavirus are secondary to her.
Each person’s temperature is checked upon entering. Masks are mandatory. Cribs are spaced in neat rows in a light and airy room with polished concrete floors and high rafters that give the feel of an airplane hangar. Officials plan to start offering Covid-19 testing on site.
Colorful posters are stuck on a wall with handwritten messages: “We want jobs and training.” “Housing, not handcuffs.” “We have the power.”
While the city provides the space, the shelter is run by activists and community organizations. They shaped it not only as a place to sleep at night, but as a hub where homeless people can get the services they need and organize and advocate for systemic changes to end homelessness. .
“Basically a shelter is a problem,” said Troy Robertson, 27, a community organizer who has lived on the streets intermittently since the age of 16.
City officials were to “find us a space that we can call ours for temporary or permanent housing,” he added, standing in the shelter, where he volunteers. “Just shelter for the night, paying all that money to say, ‘Oh, we can house these people at night’ and leave us out in the morning, that’s not fair to me.
This fleeting feeling of shelter kept Fahri Korkmaz on the streets a few days ago, in single-digit temperatures and a biting wind that numbed fingers in 10 minutes. He was not interested in temporary relief, he said, but a place that offers services to help him get back on his feet. He had heard of the convention center shelter, but was unaware that it offered services, highlighting the challenge officials face in getting the message out to the homeless population.
Mr Korkmaz, 45, was released from prison a few years ago and has lived on the streets since his car broke down five months ago. He was worried about catching an illness from a shelter – although Covid-19 was not a big concern, he said. He also didn’t want to leave his personal belongings unattended as he feared they might be stolen.
So, on that recent cold afternoon, he sat in a gray dome tent under an interstate viaduct. Dressed in a black hoodie, red jacket and snow pants, he wrapped himself in three blankets and smoked a cigarette. He warmed himself by lighting scented candles when he was awake and curling up to use his body heat when he slept.
Still, Mr Korkmaz, from Turkey, admitted that there might be a limit to what he could take. If temperatures were to drop as low as expected, he said, he might have to give in and take shelter.
“I mean, if I don’t go I’m stupid, you know what I mean?” he said. “If I lose my hands and my feet, it’s like self-suicide, self-destruction.
Mitch Smith contributed reporting.