Homeless people in quarantine face poor conditions, rudeness, and transphobia
D.C. shelter residents in the isolation and temporary quarantine (ISAQ) site at the Capitol Skyline Hotel say they are being insulted and mistreated by Department of Human Services staff and security guards.
In the week after Thanksgiving, when the number of COVID-19 cases were rising rapidly in the District, Jazmyn Small and many of her fellow shelter residents were taken in a bus to the Skyline hotel ISAQ site. One of them had come in contact with someone who displayed symptoms of COVID-19. The ISAQ programs serve people who cannot safely quarantine at home who have tested positive, are waiting for test results, or who have been in close contact with someone else who tested positive.
Small is a transgender woman who usually stays in a dorm at the Blair Transitional Rehabilitation Shelter, a private 85-person men’s shelter run by the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless.
For Small, the issues at the ISAQ site began as soon as she arrived. Her experiences have drawn the attention of local activists.
“When I asked how to get to my room, [a DHS staff member] told me, ‘common sense will tell you that you go to room 318, to the elevator on the 3rd floor, and I didn’t tell you to move yet,’” Small said.
When Small settled into her room, she realized it did not have a refrigerator to store her insulin. According to Kaiser Permanente, insulin should be kept away from heat and light and as cool as possible without freezing it, between 56°F and 80°F.
She said she had already informed nurses, who visited Blair House before her transfer, that she had diabetes. She called the DHS staff extension and said her call was picked up by a security guard.
“I said, ‘Hey, I am Ms. Small.’ And they said, ‘Well, Mr. Small?’” Small recalled.
When she tried to correct him, the guard said, “Well you’re down here as a man, and that’s what I’m going to address you as.”
When she tried to ask for ice to store her insulin medication, the guard told her the hotel had no ice and hung up.
“That was very disheartening,” Small said. She recalled throughout her stay, every time that security guard picked up her phone call, he addressed her as “Mr. Small.”
In 2006, the D.C. Human Rights Act was amended to add Gender identity that is “different from what you are assigned at birth” as a protected trait for District residents.
In a statement sent to Street Sense Media after publication, DHS said they share reports of inappropriate behavior with the D.C. Department of General Services, who contracts security services at the ISAQ sites. The statement did not indicate whether specific incidents raised in Street Sense Media’s questions were shared with DGS.
DHS also said the agency does not permit disrespectful comments from service providers and would “provide cultural competence education and training to ISAQ staff, including, with regard to the LGBTQ community.” They said the security company, Security Assurance Management, provides “LGBTQ training” to newly hired personnel as well as annual refresher training for all.
Small kept asking for a refrigerator or ice to store her medication, and says she was repeatedly denied. Small dialed room extensions to get in contact with her dorm-mates, and several of them told her they hadn’t been able to get staff to get them ice to store their medication as well.
As several days went by with no ice or access to a refrigerator provided, Small ordered a bag of ice to keep her insulin from going bad through Uber Eats, along with food, which were from two different places. The delivery driver arrived at the hotel entrance with her first order of ice but was not allowed to enter the hotel. Since Small was not allowed to leave her quarantine room, she called the staff extension to have it brought to her room. She was then told by a security guard that they did not deliver to rooms after 10 p.m.
“That was nowhere on the rules that were given to us,” Small said, referring to a list of guidelines she was given upon arrival. The guard gave her a hard time, but eventually was persuaded to pick up the ice and bring it to her door. She said she never saw name tags on the guards and will refuse to give their names if asked, so there was no way to complain about a specific individual.
When the second driver arrived with her food, Small called the hotline again, and the guard attempted to blame her for not telling him there was a second delivery. Small replied that she did indeed say there were two deliveries from the start, and the guard eventually brought the food to her door. But when she opened her door, the bag of food had clearly been dropped or thrown. Fries were strewn across the floor.
Small picked up the mess and brought her food inside. It was cold at that point, but she and other residents did not have microwaves in their rooms. “And you know how hard it is to eat cold McDonald’s.”
Addressing the Issues
Small has been homeless for a year, staying only at the privately-run Blair shelter. Most shelters in D.C. are public and managed by DHS, which contracts nonprofits to run them. Street Sense Media reported similar verbal abuse and mistreatment from staff and security guards at DHS’s Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter.
Tired and frustrated, Small started a broadcast on Facebook Live on Dec. 2 and talked about the mistreatment and conditions she was enduring at Skyline. Her video reached a larger audience than she expected, getting 2,900 views and more than 160 comments.
“It was out of anger, it was out of hopelessness,” Small said.
Cuteava Chambers commented on the video that she was also staying at the hotel and that she informed staff beforehand that she did not eat meat, but had lived there for two weeks before seeing a change. Even then, Chambers said the meals were kid-sized. Her hotel phone was broken for five days as well, and thus she had “no contact with the outside.”
“The conditions are horrible try to keep your sanity,” Chambers wrote to Small.
The video caught the attention of Jewel Stroman and other local advocates, who sat outside the hotel three times from Dec. 5 to Dec. 8, persuading DHS staff and security guards onsite to resolve residents’ issues, such as asking them to treat residents better, and to provide refrigeration. On Dec. 6, DHS Director Laura Zeilinger connected Stroman to a DHS official in charge of overseeing ISAQs. But according to Stroman’s responses, issues were not being addressed in a timely or adequate manner.
“I literally had to sit at [the Skyline hotel] for three day’s straight and babysit a bunch of grown people who are either to lazy or to incompetent to do their jobs,” Stroman wrote in an email to Zeilinger. She shared this email correspondence to Street Sense Media and several city councilmembers. Stroman said Councilmember Brianne Nadeau responded to her inquiry, and helped ensure DHS addressed these issues.
Stroman stayed outside the hotel on Dec. 8 for eight hours due to an incident where security guards shouted at a resident for trying to slightly open his door to let in some fresh, cool air. Small recorded the incident, and a guard can be seen holding another guard back.
During the incident, Stroman was told by residents that a guard threatened to pull out a gun. She said DHS adamantly denied this happened as guards are not supposed to carry firearms.
Small also tried to crack her door open, as the rooms are uncomfortably hot. She said the heat is not controlled from the room and was always set very high, regardless of the temperature. The windows also do not open.
“It’s like you’re sweating so much you want to strip your clothes off,” Small said. Staff told her that they could not lower the temperature.
Another issue residents faced was a lack of cleaning supplies. Small found a mound of cigarette butts and an empty soda can behind her bed. When she asked if she could get her room cleaned, she was told by staff that they did not have any cleaning supplies and the rooms would only be cleaned once she left.
Stroman brought this issue up to Zeilinger, and got the impression that the director thought ISAQ rooms were being cleaned every few days.
“That was an issue for me that the director of DHS didn’t seem to even know what was going on in this site,” Stroman said in an interview with Street Sense Media. “And this is something that I’ve dealt with a lot with DHS, it’s like they never seem to have knowledge of huge problems that are going on in their facilities.”
DHS later provided Lysol wipes to each resident on Dec. 9, and is now providing cleaning supplies to all residents.
DHS eventually provided Small a mini-refrigerator to store her insulin. But Stroman was not able to persuade the agency to provide refrigerators to any other residents with medical needs. Small has since been discharged from the quarantine site after not developing symptoms for 14 days after her potential exposure.
Zeilinger also informed Stroman that DHS would be performing a food audit and that food portions have been increased. DHS initially agreed to provide microwaves to residents but later called Stroman to say they could not do that and would instead install one microwave on the ground floor.
“Myself and another advocate were adamantly against it, we were like ‘listen, all these people can’t share one microwave, as some of these people have COVID-19 and some don’t,’” Stroman said.
DHS said they now provide warming and meal delivery options to residents. At request, staff warm up their food and bring it up to their rooms. Stroman has not received any recent food complaints since those changes were made but said some residents still need refrigeration for their medication.
This article has been updated to include the Department of Human Service’s response to Street Sense Media inquiries. This includes how DHS handles disrespectful comments, including those towards LGBTQ people, and how meals are being heated and delivered to ISAQ residents.