ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) - Eduardo Fernandez was coming to terms with death before a new threat started creeping in around him.
He moved into a gazebo-shaped tent at the top of a clearing in the wooded Little Lehigh Parkway in August after he was diagnosed with lung cancer and given six to 12 months to live. Tarp and a Little Buddy heater make the tent tolerable at night, and a few neighbors keep Fernandez, 59, from feeling lonely at the encampment, where days are passed in folding chairs around a small fire pit.
“It’s not much, but it’s home,” he said, jovial on a recent Monday.
But the woods have drawn many others in the past few weeks, since the coronavirus pandemic led most Lehigh Valley shelters to close their doors. Down the hill, newcomers wheeled carts filled with belongings to fresh campsites, where they pitched tents because there was nowhere else to go, nowhere to “stay at home.” And with them comes a risk that the contagion spreading through the city and state could reach the encampment.
The situation concerns city officials and homeless advocates who say it’s only a matter of time before an outbreak strikes the Lehigh Valley’s homeless, many of whom have preexisting medical conditions that put them at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
“Time is not on our side right now,” said Sherri Binder, executive director of the Ripple Community Center on Linden Street in Allentown, among the few day centers in the Lehigh Valley still open to the homeless, along with the Allentown Rescue Mission, which has extended its hours to 24/7.
Allentown’s homeless have yet to see an outbreak, but the population, now mostly on the streets or in encampments, is not ready for when that happens, advocates say.
Bethlehem has identified one positive coronavirus case among the homeless, though city officials said that person was not staying in an encampment or shelter and is now being quarantined in a hotel.
“So far, no one in the encampments is positive, but I just know it’s a ticking time bomb,” said Nani Cuadrado, director of Lehigh Valley Health Network’s Street Medicine team, which visits encampments around the Lehigh Valley to educate the homeless about the seriousness of coronavirus and how to protect themselves.
More than three weeks into the statewide stay-at-home order, local officials are still working with community advocates to identify both short- and long-term solutions to shelter the unsheltered and quarantine positive cases.
On Wednesday, Bethlehem announced a partnership with New Bethany Ministries and Comfort Suites Bethlehem to provide hotel rooms for homeless individuals and families, in an effort to control the spread. The preventive measure is being paid for with a $669,420 public health emergency preparedness grant the city received from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Comfort Suites on West Third Street is set up to house 10 individuals for eight weeks. The city will provide them with a $15 weekly gift card to a food store, and they will have access to New Bethany Ministries’ soup kitchen, said Executive Director Marc Rittle. To qualify for the housing, they must live in the city.
By a recent Wednesday afternoon, two people had already been housed and another two called seeking shelter from an encampment, Rittle said.
Depending on the need, more hotel rooms could be made available. When it is safe enough, those people will be transferred to New Bethany’s transitional housing program, which provides clients with a case manager and helps them get a job to secure housing, Rittle said.
Last month, Allentown officials announced the city had secured 33 rooms at the Four Points by Sheraton on Hamilton Boulevard for homeless individuals who need to be quarantined. That deal, which was 42 days in the making, fell through shortly thereafter, said Allentown Councilwoman Ce-Ce Gerlach. Gerlach said the city later secured another hotel arrangement for homeless who have tested positive or are awaiting test results, as well as space in another hotel for overflow. The city did not release the names of these hotels.
She said the city is still considering a more immediate shelter solution for the broader homeless population, such as making use of the Allentown School District’s empty facilities like J. Birney Crum stadium, or setting up tent encampments in other locations in the city.
Until Allentown finds a solution, efforts have ramped up to prepare the homeless as much as possible.
Cuadrado’s team of four doctors visits seven encampments across the Lehigh Valley almost daily, including two sites in Allentown, three in Bethlehem and two in Easton. The doctors educate camp residents about social distancing and hygiene, and pass out masks and hand sanitizer.
At Ripple every Friday, Cuadrado’s team fashions a makeshift doctor’s office in a backroom, checking people’s vital signs, making sure they have hand sanitizer, lending a supportive ear or a gloved hand. The doctors also provide Narcan if needed, to protect those in danger of overdosing on heroin. Soon they will offer telehealth addiction treatment, on demand, to anyone who needs it, with funding from the Dorothy Rider Pool Health Care Trust.
The virus is highlighting existing weaknesses in the system such as access to health care and affordable housing, Binder said. But the disease has the potential to make the situation much worse for the homeless.
A pandemic is stressful enough for those who have homes. Not only is there a fear of a coronavirus outbreak in the encampments, but there’s the possibility that as more people pour into these places and stress piles up, tensions will boil over.
“If we can’t collectively, through this crisis, make sure people feel safe and cared for, a public health crisis can quickly become a public safety crisis,” Binder said.
Taking care of each other
Once a dozen or so tents on a hilly clearing in the woods, Allentown’s encampment has spread into clusters stretching from the Little Lehigh Creek to Trout Creek, to a total of about 50 tents in recent weeks.
When the Bethlehem Emergency Shelter and the Allentown YMCA Warming Station closed early last month, Cuadrado estimates an additional 100 to 120 people moved to encampments.
For some, the Parkway’s dense woods are a last resort, but for others, they’re a haven, where people can live in relative solitude, beyond the gawking eyes of the public and or the attention of police.
“It’s the only place we’re not getting kicked out of,” said Anna Lightner, who’s been in the tent city since July.
The camp is a frequent stop for volunteers from churches or Operation Address the Homeless, who bring donated goods to the people who live there. In recent weeks, those groups have increased their visits.
People in the camps sometimes pool the donations and share meals. Fernandez recently took charge of a cartful of name yams, a staple of the Cuban cooking he remembers from his youth. He and others prepared a meal of mashed yams and chicken, which Lightner purchased with her food stamps. Another camp mate provided charcoal for the fire.
“They are way more resilient than we are. They have been surviving in harsh conditions a lot longer than we have,” Cuadrado said. “I think it’s just part of their nature to take care of each other, and I think they are doing very well right now.”
It’s this same close community living, however, that puts a group already vulnerable to disease at an even greater risk.
Outbreaks have been reported among encampments and shelters in Seattle, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, among others. California has led the charge in providing shelter for the homeless during the pandemic, with Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announcing the state is securing 16,000 hotel rooms. On Saturday, Newsom said more than 4,200 people were moved into hotel rooms, according to The Associated Press.
Whatever emergency solutions Lehigh Valley officials craft for the homeless, Binder said they should have four characteristics: allow for social distancing; have running water and sanitation options; have access to medical and food service providers; and feel safe.
Because shelters aren’t set up for social distancing, one solution might be to keep the encampments, but with better resources.
“Give us a generator, build a tent with a kitchen and a bathroom for us to live out here comfortably,” suggested 33-year-old Timothy Sam, who lives in a cluster of tents in the Parkway. “You’re not going to do nothing by just keep talking.”
Some living in the camps have personal protective equipment and others don’t, Lightner said. People might not wear a mask inside the camp, but may put one on when they venture out for supplies. Sam said in his encampment, people have been regularly sanitizing their hands.
Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton have all set up portable hand-sanitizing stations and portable toilets near encampments.
Many who live in the camps have cellphones, thanks to a government program that provides them. So they aren’t in the dark about the threat the virus holds. But for some, the bigger anxiety has more to do with the changing social dynamics as a result of more people setting up camp.
“If I’m going to catch it, I’m going to catch it,” four-year resident David Strohl said of the virus.
“My only concern would be infecting somebody else,” Fernandez said.
For the homeless, a pandemic is just one more worry in a life already weighed down by the lack of basic necessities, Gerlach said.
“Where will I eat? Where will I sleep? Oh yeah, there’s this virus thing going around. But I’m cold, I’m hungry and I’m lost.”
For many, she said, the virus is not the biggest crisis in their lives. Daily survival is.
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com
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