People Experiencing Homelessness Brace for More Changes in Support Systems

Where are they supposed to go?

A homeless man, Steve, wears a protective mask while walking along Red River (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

As the Austin-Travis County community undergoes a retreat into isolation to slow spread of the new coronavirus, people experiencing homelessness are asking: Where are they supposed to go?

For those without permanent housing who are living in a temporary shelter, like the Austin Resource Center of the Homeless (ARCH) Downtown, the question is not yet as pressing. They still have a bed to sleep in and a place to get out of the elements, for the time being.

“Our goal is to remain open and to be able to remain open.” – Front Steps Executive Director Greg McCormack

But for those living outside of a shelter – likely in the thousands, although the results from the 2020 Point in Time Count have not yet been released – a week that saw the closure of many public facilities means the loss of vital resources that offer respite, places to wash hands, and a connection to the world.

"[Austin Community College] is closed, the libraries are closed, rec centers are closed, so all of the people experiencing homelessness who had other places to go are out of options," Steven Potter, a member of the Austin Homelessness Advisory Coun­cil (AHAC), told the Chronicle this week. "With the libraries alone, we've lost a place to sanitize and connect to the internet as a way for us to stay informed."

Even the places that have historically always been accessible to people experiencing homelessness are undergoing necessary operational changes in response to the growing spread of coronavirus into our communities. Front Steps, the nonprofit that operates the ARCH, had to make the difficult choice this week to close down its day center to non-clients – that is, people who are not undergoing case management and staying in a bed at the shelter.

Several people living without housing told us the closure of ARCH's day center will be a blow to the unhoused community. Typically, the line of people waiting to access the center's amenities – showers, storage lockers, chairs to sit in – stretches down Seventh Street toward I-35. As of Tuesday morning, the line was still there, but none of the people waiting in it would be allowed inside.

Front Steps Executive Director Greg McCormack knows how much the community he serves relies upon the resources his shelter offers, which reflects the gravity with which he made the decision. "We're really, a lot of times, the last vestige for someone who has nowhere else to go," McCormack told us on Friday, March 13.

But as is the case with every organization operating in a society wracked by pandemic, the situation is ever-evolving. Since we talked last week, McCormack has had to implement new social distancing measures, including prohibiting clients from returning to their beds on the third floor once they leave in the morning. After they leave, the Front Steps custodial staff perform a deep clean of the bunks, and people are not allowed to return until the evening, to help prevent spread of the virus.

Front Steps staff are still operating at full capacity, allowing social workers to continue work with clients on attaining long-term housing, accessing medical care, and generally striding toward more stability in life, but McCormack said he is looking at operating the shelter on a "skeleton crew" should the outbreak situation worsen in Austin. As hard as these decisions are, they are being made now to prevent the worst case scenario: shutting down the shelter completely.

"Our goal is to remain open and to be able to remain open," McCormack told us on Tuesday. "Some of the decisions we're having to make are in line with that. If we had multiple outbreaks or if something happened at the shelter, the recommendation would likely be to close the shelter. But the measures we are taking now are to try and prevent that from happening."

Across the street from the ARCH, Caritas of Austin is also undergoing change. Unlike the ARCH, Caritas does not offer shelter beds to people experiencing homelessness, but they offer a variety of services including financial assistance, case management, and access to food that are critical to helping individuals exit homelessness. Additionally, their Downtown and North Austin offices both offer resources available to anyone, whether they are working with a Caritas social worker or not.

With churches across the city closing their doors, access to food is a growing fear among people experiencing homelessness and the service providers who help them. The Downtown office's Community Kitchen has long been one of the places where people experiencing homelessness can eat a hot lunch. But that operation, which is largely volunteer-driven, is changing. The kitchen was closed on Monday, but handed out sack lunches on Tuesday. Beginning next week, the dining room will be closed to guests and Caritas will hand out sack lunches to people waiting outside the building.

Similarly, the food pantries, which are operated at both locations but only available to clients, will remain open. But clients will no longer do their own shopping – they'll tell staff what they need, and then they'll be handed the items. At the Downtown office, the community restrooms and computer access will still be available to anyone – but only one person will be allowed in the lobby to utilize those resources at a time. All of these efforts serve the same purpose: Slow the spread of the virus, while still offering help to the people who have few other options.

What connects all of these services is that they require money and volunteers – two resources that are increasingly in short supply. With nonprofit funding already suffering as society braces for a global recession, some of these programs may need to be scaled back even further, or halted altogether. "There is no way to know for certain what the long-term effects of the COVID-19 outbreak and the resulting drastic economic slowdown will have on our organization and our clients," Caritas President and CEO Jo Kathryn Quinn told us.

The clients Caritas serves are largely employed in the hospitality and service industry, too, which has been hardest hit by the immediate economic downturn resulting from drastic, but necessary, social distancing measures. Some of the clients Caritas serves are people formerly experiencing homelessness, and though they are now housed, they still are in need of other services to reach greater stability in life. "We anticipate the need to significantly increase the provision of rent and utility assistance to clients who will lose their income for an indefinite period of time," Quinn told us. "But if funding is lost, this will not be possible, putting our clients at risk of losing their home once again."

The cancellation of SXSW alone was enough to make the economic downturn real for people living without housing, especially those who stay Downtown. The forced closure of bars and restaurants will only add to the pain. Steve Harrell, who has a bed at the ARCH, told us he's less worried about outbreak of COVID-19 and more so from the sting he's feeling from canceling SXSW and closing Downtown bars.

"Sixth Street is a ghost town already," Harrell said on Tuesday. "It's critical to our lifestyle down here. Not only from panhandling, but from bars hiring us to help out. I've had places pay me $10 to take their trash out, but that's not going to happen now." During the festival, Harrell said, it's not uncommon to take home $100 in a day from panhandling and working odd jobs for bars Downtown.

Harrell is also worried about what this means for the future of his case management work. He's already been waiting on housing for over three years, frustrating in itself, but the prospect of possibly waiting even longer due to yet another force completely out of his control is "overwhelming. I'm looking for an apartment, and I don't know what all of this means for that," he told us. "It scares me, because we've never lived in these times. I'll be 56 soon, and I've never lived through anything like this."

Amid the uncertainty, city officials are working to provide some relief for people experiencing homelessness. The city departments (Parks and Recreation, Water­shed, and Public Works) that had been conducting "cleanups" of homeless encampments "that have the potential to displace individuals," will be suspended "until further notice," a decision based on federal recommendations, per a city spokesperson.

Austin Public Health has prepared "health kits," which will include sanitary wipes, that will be distributed to people experiencing homelessness. Outreach workers, like those on the Homeless Out­reach Street Team, are continuing "targeted outreach services," which will provide information on COVID-19, how to access care and testing, as well as health kits and socks.

For now, the CommUnityCare (CUC) Mobile and Street Medicine teams have been diverted from their normal work to provide "the frontline CUC response to the COVID-19 pandemic for the most vulnerable patients of our service area," per a county spokesperson. But once those operations have been successfully implemented, it is expected that the street teams will return to providing care at their designated sites and times. But, the situation remains fluid. "It is difficult to determine how long the standard operating model of our [mobile teams] will be impacted," the spokesperson said.

But there will be other concerns to consider. If an outbreak does spread among people experiencing homelessness, they will not have a home where they can safely isolate, to protect themselves and their neighbors; many have underlying health conditions which make them vulnerable to the virus. If shelters are forced to close – where will the people living in them go? If more outreach workers are called back to provide frontline emergency response to COVID-19, who will meet the needs of the people living on the streets and in encampments? If soup kitchens, churches, and other organizations that provide meals to those without housing close, how will they continue to eat?

City leaders and service providers are well aware of these challenges, and they are working on possible solutions, just as they are to the other myriad societal problems stemming from the coronavirus.

Whatever the solutions turn out to be – it's important that they don't take away the agency of people experiencing homelessness. "I'm a person too, and I want choices," Potter, the AHAC member, told us. "I know we need to worry about the safety of everyone, but if people are forced into a place where they feel institutionalized, that might not work out well. If I had a choice between that and sitting on the riverbed listening to the crickets, I'm going to choose the riverbed every time."

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