A Unity Health Care truck in front of the Downtown Day Services Center. Photo by Eric Falquero

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The D.C. Department of Human Services confirmed on Tuesday that five individuals from three separate homeless shelters have tested positive for COVID-19. Each of the five infected individuals have been quarantined or hospitalized and are receiving medical care, according to DHS Director Laura Zeilinger.

“The situation is evolving rapidly,” Zeilinger said, noting that there were zero confirmed cases among shelter residents just four days prior. She said DHS’s top priority is making sure people are in a place that is safe and where their exposure to the novel coronavirus is limited.

Staff and residents at each of the shelters, Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter, Patricia Handy Place for Women and the Community for Creative Non-Violence, were notified by DHS on Sunday. Authorities have also traced the COVID-19-positive individuals’ recent interactions and made quarantine available to the people who may have come into close contact with them.

DHS has also partnered with Unity Health Care to screen for residents who seem to be symptomatic, and to identify people that may benefit from a medical exam and potential testing, according to Zeilinger.  “People who do not have symptoms are not being tested by virtue of housing status alone,“ she said.

Zeilinger also told Street Sense Media that DHS has secured rooms in three local hotels to house individuals who have either tested positive and don’t require hospitalization, are symptomatic and are awaiting test results, or may have been exposed to an infected individual. 

The announcement makes D.C. the latest city to begin temporarily housing homeless residents in hotels, which have seen drastically low levels of occupancy in recent weeks. While Mayor Muriel Bowser’s March 24 order to close nonessential businesses allows hotels to continue operating, occupancy rates in D.C. hotels dropped to less than 50% over the past month. Industry leaders expect them to fall below 20%.

Ed Lazere, the former executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute who recently stepped down to run for an at-large D.C. Council seat, endorsed using hotels and large public facilities to house homeless residents and steer money to the hospitality industry in a statement last week.

In an email, Lazere commended DHS for “moving forward quickly on this” and said he “hope[s] they are able to house everyone who needs it.”

In San Francisco, more than 30 hotels have offered nearly 8,500 empty rooms to local authorities who are scrambling to house the city’s unhoused population of more than 5,000 people.

Similar options are being pursued in Oakland, where two hotels have offered up at least 393 rooms, and Seattle, where King County officials purchased a motel in early March for unhoused people who needed to be quarantined. Another 31-room facility for helping homeless residents isolate themselves opened on March 24. In the meantime, Seattle-area shelters have been moving dozens of clients into local hotels.

One of the three D.C. hotels that is cooperating with DHS has been set aside just for vulnerable members of the homeless community, such as those with an underlying health condition or people over the age of 65, in order to protect them from contracting the coronavirus, Zeilinger said.

She also indicated that people experiencing homelessness who have pending test results are being offered a hotel room where they can isolate so that they don’t risk transmitting the virus before they know their status. Two weeks prior, WJLA reported that a man who had been told to return to a shelter to await his test results chose to sleep outside of the shelter that night instead. DHS connected him to a quarantine facility soon thereafter.

Zeilinger said DHS is following a “very specific protocol” which, in addition to quarantine, includes a deep cleaning of affected shelters and providing information to residents about potential exposure and what symptoms to look out for.

With cases of COVID-19 in the District continuing to rise rapidly up to 495 as of Tuesday night Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a formal stay-at-home order on Monday. The order exempts individuals experiencing homelessness and urges shelters “to use COVID-19 risk-mitigation practices in their operations.”

In densely populated places like shelters, however, social distancing is often easier said than done.

“We’re more subject to it than anybody,” said a woman living at the Patricia Handy Place for Women shelter. “We’re in a common area. You’re in a dorm sharing with 10 other people. You might be sleeping right next to somebody that’s got it …. Once you leave the building and go somewhere, you can bring it back to the building.”

The Patricia Handy Place for Women shelter on February 20, 2016. Photo by Reginald Black

At Patricia Handy, many residents were already worried about the potential of the virus spreading in the shelter in the days leading up to the detection of the first five cases, she said.

“I think everybody in this building is stressed out,” said the woman, whose name has been withheld to avoid any potential negative impacts as a result of speaking about the shelter where she lives. 

She said there are sanitizer dispensers on the walls, residents no longer have to leave their dorms in the morning, there are informational signs posted, and a handout that shows what to do to protect yourself and others was passed out to each resident.

“I think they’re doing everything they can, it’s just not enough,” she said.

On March 27, Patricia Handy staff began measuring each resident’s blood pressure and body temperature and asked if residents had experienced symptoms like a cough, fever or shortness of breath, the woman said.

The resident said one woman was taken away from the shelter after medical personnel visited that day, and three others had been removed during the previous week. Nothing had been announced and she did not want to speculate. But the silence about the situation worried here even more. Residents were not informed about the detection of COVID-19 cases in the shelters until they received a letter signed by DHS Director Laura Zeilinger on March 29.

“They don’t want to have a panic, but everyone is panicked,” she said. “If they’re not, I know I am.”

“A lot of people in here don’t like going to the hospital even if they’re sick,” the resident said. “One lady has been coughing for two months. Some people don’t wash their hands … I’ve washed mine so much I think they’re falling off.”

Another shelter resident at 801 East Men’s Shelter said that maintaining a distance of at least six feet from others was virtually impossible due to space constraints and the desire to house as many homeless people as possible.

“People would rather be in than out, trust me,” said the man, whose name has also been withheld to avoid negative repercussions for speaking about the shelter. “It’s definitely been full. I don’t know if they’re turning people away or not, but it’s definitely been full every day since I’ve been here. I’ve been homeless a couple months now.” 

He said sanitizer was not readily available, but could be requested, and there was always soap in all three bathrooms. He noted that being confined to a facility like 801 East with several hundred people is a lot different from being isolated at home with a handful of people.

DHS’s low-barrier shelters, like Patricia Handy, which N Street Village is contracted to run, and 801 East, which Catholic Charities is contracted to run, were converted from overnight programs to 24-hour programs. Zeilinger said full meals are being provided at all of the agency’s shelter sites so that people can have their needs met without having to travel and congregate outdoors and risk contracting or spreading the virus. Many establishments people experiencing homelessness often depend on have also closed, including D.C. Public Library and both DHS daytime service centers for homeless adults.

“I think that’s a plus, trying to keep it contained,” said the woman at Patricia Handy. “‘Cause a lot of the people in here, I see they’re not going nowhere.”

As the city grapples with protecting homeless residents from the outbreak, new housing placements have also been put on hold due to the complex meetings and interactions involved. “The housing resources we have aren’t going away,” Zeilinger said. “But if we can’t keep people safe today it’s going to be catastrophic for our population.”

Eric Falquero contributed reporting.


Updated (04.01.2020)

This article has been updated to include further comments from D.C. Council at-large candidate Ed Lazere.