What does reopening look like for DC’s homeless community?
.C. entered Phase Two of reopening on June 22 despite not officially meeting all the criteria to do so. Phase Two is the second of a 4-stage plan to reopen the District as new cases of COVID-19 decline. Gatherings of up to 50 people are now legal, as is limited indoor seating at restaurants, shopping at non-essential businesses and the use of gyms.
Per D.C.’s coronavirus website, guidelines for allowing Phase Two to commence included a sustained 14-day decrease in community spread, comprehensive testing, less than 15% of tests returning positive for a week, hospital bed utilization at less than 80% for more than two weeks, and a more efficient method of contact tracing in which over 90% of people recently diagnosed with COVID-19 are contacted within a day with their test results.
While D.C. has seen a decrease in positive cases, there was a spike on June 11 that derailed the desired consecutive two weeks of decreased spread. The city only counts community spread among housed residents toward its public reopening metrics. People living in congregate settings where proactive safety measures like social distancing are very hard to enact — such as homeless shelters, jails, or nursing homes — are not considered for this benchmark.
For much of the city, reopening has meant a cautious return to use of restaurants and office spaces. But for those experiencing homelessness, who were always exempt from the mayor’s May 30 stay-at-home order, reopening feels different.
Members of the homeless community, more than half of whom have disabling conditions, are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. As of June 28, DHS reported that 315 people in shelters have tested positive for COVID-19. The 2020 point-in-time count found that 4,526 people experiencing homelessness in D.C. were living in shelters in January, meaning 6.9% of shelter residents tested positive for the novel coronavirus. As of June 28 10,292 people, or 1.5% of the District’s overall population, had tested positive. Sixty-three people from shelters or who live unsheltered are in hotels for remote quarantine. Twenty homeless D.C. residents have died due to the virus.
D.C.’s lockdown and subsequent reopening have brought disruptions to many of the services that people experiencing homelessness rely on. Closing public libraries meant cutting off computer and internet access for many. Closing coffee shops and stores meant shuttering bathrooms that usually supplement the city’s dearth of public restrooms. Government agencies and nonprofits were forced to rethink how they deliver human services while minimizing human contact, resulting in schedule or service changes. Many faith-based programs closed, along with the houses of worship they were affiliated with. The city’s patchwork safety net frayed and the Department of Human Services worked around the clock to navigate how best to serve its most vulnerable consumers.
DHS extended the operating hours of low-barrier emergency shelters for individuals in order to reduce their residents’ need to be in public areas. All year-round emergency shelters shifted to 24-hour service and will stay that way in Phase Two, according to Dora Taylor-Lowe, the public information officer for DHS. Before the pandemic, these six emergency shelter locations, three for men and three for women, provided shelter from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. and required that residents leave during the day. Those seeking shelter would wait in line as needed to claim a bed each evening.
Shelter access for families is a different story. The Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, the only place in the city where a person experiencing homelessness can obtain a referral for family shelter, had to suspend in-person meetings and conduct all business by phone. Before the public health crisis, anyone could visit the office in Brentwood without prior approval. However, since March, prospective clients have been able to contact the Virginia Williams Center only via phone or through the city’s shelter hotline (202-399-7093).
There are not many changes to services offered by the DHS during the second phase of reopening, DHS Chief of Staff Larry Handerhan said during a June 26 COVID-19 briefing for homeless services providers. One exception he noted was that DHS would resume full staffing for street outreach programs.
Phase Two of D.C.’s reopening plan has also brought changes to a number of programs designed to help low-income people in the District, not all of whom are people experiencing homelessness.
As the Public Health Emergency designation in D.C. was extended through July 24, DHS has requested extensions on a number of exceptions to qualify for its programs, including “waiving the interview requirements at initial and recertification and extending certification periods” for public benefits, a DHS staffer explained at the June 26 briefing. The DHS call center (202-727-5355) for public benefits is open. Hours of operation for Economic Security Administration service centers — where individuals can apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), among other financial programs — are unchanged. DHS recently launched a mobile phone application called D.C. Access for submitting initial ESA applications.
Emergency SNAP allotments, additional funds initially dispersed to existing users in April to provide access to food during the public health emergency, will continue through the month of July. Free lunches continue to be distributed through the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program to families who get free and reduced-price lunches when schools meet in person. The Good Hope Road EBT distribution center in Anacostia has reopened and will serve clients on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 7:30 a.m. and 4:45 p.m.
During Phase Two, the showers at the Banneker Rec Center will no longer be available to the homeless community, as the Department of Parks and Recreation is now allowed to reopen certain public pools for restricted use.
Per the DHS website, the Downtown Day Services Center has reopened and is prepared to provide showers, laundry, emergency clothing, meals and phone charging by appointment only (202-674-2365) for D.C. residents experiencing homelessness. Clients must wear masks on the premises, and social distancing will be enforced. The day center had previously been closed, offering take-away meals in a nearby park.
Beginning June 29, eight D.C. Public Library locations reopened. According to a press release, computers and printers for public use will also be available shortly. Like restaurants and stores, the number of people allowed to enter will be limited to 50% capacity, as mandated by the mayor, and masks will be required.
Director Laura Zeilinger said during the June 26 briefing that as DHS plans for the future the agency is preparing for in-person case management visits to restart on a limited basis and will continue to streamline the process to remotely match people with housing assistance. The city’s housing assessment for system single individuals, which was paused in March due to the many in-person meetings the process entailed, restarted in May. Zeilinger said the department resumed making housing matches for families and youth in shared living spaces in June.
At the present time D.C.has met four of the seven requirements needed to proceed to Phase Three of reopening, according to the guide produced by the mayor’s appointed ReOpen D.C. Advisory Group. The District has dramatically outperformed the imposed 90% minimum amount of people — and close contacts of those people — that must be alerted within a day of diagnosis for contract tracing purposes. Further, the rate of transmission of coronavirus cases has remained below one for more than five days, and fewer than 10% of tests have returned positive over the last seven days. However, there has not been a sustained decrease in cases in the community or revolving utilization of hospital beds below 80% over a period of 14 days. Data on the seventh requirement has not been released.
DHS reports mass testing will soon begin in low-barrier shelters in order to identify asymptomatic positive clients and staff. Previously, Unity Health Care had been proactively helping shelter staff screen as many people as possible for COVID-19-related symptoms to help prioritize those with several primary symptoms for testing. Periodic mass testing will continue until no tests return positive.
The agency is also currently seeking additional low-barrier shelter space in order to provide more social distancing in the fall and winter months. Metrics for returning to higher shelter occupation are in development, but capacity remains decreased at present.
In an effort to curb prolonged impact by COVID-19 on shelters, DHS says strategies to reduce movement will remain in place for now.
The most up-to-date information about services provided by DHS during the health crisis can be found at https://dhs.dc.gov/service/dhs-modified-operations-during-covid-19