Homeless service providers fear the spread of the coronavirus could decimate their community, who typically lack health care and access to hygiene materials, now that many of the businesses they previously turned to have been shuttered.
“People experiencing homelessness generally have poorer health outcomes and have a life expectancy about 30 years younger than the average American,” said Amanda Harris, who heads the Montgomery County Health Department’s program to end homelessness.
Ms. Harris said 50 people experiencing homelessness are staying in hotels, but that number is likely to increase. County officials tallied 647 people experiencing homeless in the 2019 Point in Time survey.
Montgomery County, with more than 1 million residents, is Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction and has the largest number of COVID-19 cases — 447 — among the state’s counties. However, county officials said no one staying in a homeless shelter has yet tested positive for the deadly respiratory disease.
Shelter providers say they have to find creative ways to promote social distancing to prevent an outbreak.
“Shelters by nature are very crowded there’s such an emphasis on social distance, which is infeasible with the current structure,” said Liz Krueger, a program director at the nonprofit Interfaith Works in Montgomery County.
Ms. Krueger said volunteers are encouraging the 80 people in the shelter to sleep side-by-side, head-to-toe to create distance between people’s mouths.
Meanwhile, the county government is working with providers to open additional shelters in recreation centers that are closed due to the pandemic, which will provide more space for the people living in shelters.
Gwendolyn Coffield Community Center will open this week to house 50 women, and the Long Branch Community Center will serve 100 men.
At the shelter where Ms. Krueger works, volunteers no longer are turning away non-county residents. She said they have seen an influx of D.C. residents who say they find shelters in the District overwhelming.
“They feel safer staying together outside than in shelters,” said Brianna Perez-Brennan, an outreach worker for Pathways to Housing D.C.
In the District, five people staying in homeless shelters have tested positive for COVID-19 and 49 are in quarantine, according to the D.C. Department of Health. City officials counted 6,521 people experiencing homeless in the 2019 Point in Time survey.
Susana Castillo, press secretary for D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, said that by the end of the week standalone hand-washing stations will be installed near areas where people live outside.
As of Wednesday, Maryland reported 1,985 coronavirus cases and 31 COVID-19 deaths, with 69 patients recovering from the disease. The state is home to more than 6 million people.
The District, which has more than more than 700,000 residents, reported 586 cases and 11 deaths, with 142 patients having recovered.
Virginia, whose population tops 8.5 million, reported 1,484 cases and 34 deaths. State officials did not say how many patients have recovered but noted that 15,344 Virginians have been tested for the coronavirus.
The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development said it was not aware of any coronavirus cases among the commonwealth’s homeless population.
“The health and safety of our most vulnerable residents is our top priority,” said Thomas Barnett, acting director of the Fairfax County Office to Prevent and End Homelessness. “Residents interested in helping people experiencing homelessness are encouraged to support their local non-profit.”
As stay-at-home orders and bans on nonessential businesses put more people out of work, Ms. Harris said she is concerned about how the economic fallout will impact homelessness.
“We made a lot of inroads into ending homeless,” she said, noting Montgomery County saw a 23% decrease in homelessness last year. “I am very concerned about being able to maintain those wins.”