Homeless people forced to stay in makeshift shelters as coronavirus spreads. What they need is real housing

FORT COLLINS, Colorado — James Anderson jammed a pocketknife deep into the earth, a yellow string stretching from the handle to where it was tied to his flimsy green tent.

“I think that’ll hold,” he said as a gust of wind rattled the fabric. “I hope it will. I think it will.”

All around him, dozens of men and women were similarly using makeshift stakes and rope to strengthen their tents. Others piled up their meager belongings to make windbreaks as a storm forecast to drop 10 inches of snow on the city darkened the sky.

An estimated 553,000 people experience homelessness on any given night in the United States, a dangerous living situation that’s being exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak. Amid the pandemic, many have been pushed into shelters or encampments like this one on the playing fields of a city-owned recreation center. But advocates say real solutions are needed — not temporary, makeshift housing — and are warning federal leaders that the nation will only remain as healthy as its less fortunate residents. 

Public health officials and advocates for the homeless have for decades warned that people living on the streets are generally sicker and more vulnerable than most Americans. But the coronavirus outbreak has hammered that point home with deadly seriousness: At least 27 people experiencing homelessness have already died in New York City, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, where nearly 14,000 died as of Tuesday, or nearly one third of the nation’s death toll. 

The challenge will likely get worse, experts say, because 22.2 million Americans have lost their jobs in the wake of national closures. 

“We have a pandemic laid over an epidemic. We have a situation that’s suddenly at the front of people’s mind because they recognize that the health of their neighbor has immense impact on their own health,” said Commissioner Kenneth Hodder, the Western District commander for the Salvation Army, the nation’s largest non-government social services provider with 7,600 sites nationally.

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness said they are frustrated at the slow pace of response, with many accusing the federal government of being more interested in bailing out Wall Street than Main Street, especially since most services are provided at the local level, and are heavily dependent on charity and sales taxes.

To further complicate matters, homeless people may miss out on the federal stimulus checks and other benefits being offered if they have no fixed address at which to receive mail.

Roughly 17 out of every 10,000 Americans experience homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C. Of those,about 33 percent are families with children. 

Federal guidelines for helping slow the spread of coronavirus call for people experiencing homelessness to either be sheltered in large “congregate” shelters, like recreation centers or auditoriums, or in encampments like the one in Fort Collins. Those measures are cheaper in the short term than providing proper housing.

In Fort Collins, city officials and multiple nonprofit agencies have transformed a recreation center on the edge of the city’s historic downtown into a shelter for up to 200 men and women. It’s a place where they can get three free meals a day while health officials take their temperature and preside over handwashing stations and flush toilets. They’re encouraged to sleep inside, although many still prefer their tents.

“Rather than dispersing people into the shadows during a global pandemic, we have them here in front of us,” said Holly LeMasurier, who is helping manage the Fort Collins shelter.

Anyone using the shelter, including those showing symptoms and awaiting test results, is free to come and go. Workers encourage clients to maintain social distancing and wear masks even when not inside.

The goal is to slow the spread of the outbreak and help save lives. People experiencing homelessness generally lack access to adequate sanitary facilities such as sinks to wash their hands in, and often congregate in tight groups or on city buses while also moving around regularly.

In New York City, aerial photos of mass burials of unclaimed bodies grabbed international headlines last week. The city normally has about 25 unclaimed bodies buried on Hart Island each week, but the coronavirus outbreak has accelerated that to two dozen a day. Authorities weren’t immediately able to say how many of those bodies belonged to people experiencing homelessness, but acknowledged that at least some of them likely were.

But some people experiencing homelessness said they are worried that by rounding them up in one place, officials are putting them at risk to protect others, instead of prioritizing their personal safety. Some also said they were resentful about their loss of freedom given the many rules associated with shelters, including restrictions against pets, alcohol or drugs. 

Few people at the shelter or encampment expressed concern about coronavirus infections. Instead, they fretted about the quality of the food and heavy police presence.

“When you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from, or trying to figure out a way out of homelessness or struggling with addiction, you’re not thinking a lot about the coronavirus,” said Brad Meuli, president and CEO of the Denver Rescue Mission.

Outside the shelter in Fort Collins, John Carlin said he worries pressure from the public will prompt city officials or police to start locking up people like him. Carlin, who sat huddled in a blanket with his dog, Brando, lost his housing earlier this year when the woman he was living with asked him to move out.

“I keep joking that one day we’re going to wake up with barbed wire fences around this place, but I’m only half joking,” he said.

Peigan Buchanan, 19, said it’s been frustrating to watch how police have closely patrolled the encampment, instead of intervening only when there’s a real problem. Buchanan lost her job as a cook at a restaurant only a few block away from the tent city. She recently observed officers confront an elderly man in possession of a large sheath knife.

Officers confiscated the man’s knife and ordered him to leave the encampment for violating rules against weapons, even though the knife was sheathed and he wasn’t threatening anyone with it. At times, there were at least six officers at the encampment, along with two private security officers hired to patrol the shelter.

Buchanan said the city’s population of people experiencing homelessness have been effectively corralled into the encampment by threats that they’ll be ticketed for illegally camping if they don’t stay off the streets, perpetuating a cycle of poverty caused by fines and detention.

“If you look like you’re homeless, people assume you have the coronavirus or you’re going to bite their head off,” said Buchanan. “These are people. No matter how many fences they put up or how many cops there are, these are people.”

Advocates for the homeless say study after study shows that providing stable housing in the form of subsidized or free apartments is ultimately far cheaper than trying to address the myriad individual challenges faced by that community, from drug and alcohol abuse to repeated jailings, court appearances and emergency room visits.

Those advocates are trying to persuade the federal government — with mixed success — to help pay for hotel rooms in cities from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and Chicago, arguing that keeping the homeless community safe and healthy will protect the rest of the country from potential reinfection.

In New York City, authorities have been renting $200-a-night hotel rooms to isolate people who have no home but are showing signs of infection, and in the Seattle area, public health officials bought a motel for the same purpose. 

“This is the case study that housing IS health,” said Dr. James Stewart, a medical doctor and public-health expert helping oversee the Fort Collins shelter on behalf of the Health District of Northern Larimer County. “If we don’t prevent the outbreaks in our community, we are all at risk.”

Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, say this crisis could prove a tipping point for long-needed structural changes, where the United States starts to treat men and women experiencing homelessness with the care and empathy you’d expect from the world’s richest nation.

“It’s always a matter of political will. It’s not that we can’t afford to do it or we don’t know how to do it. It’s that we don’t want to it. And this kind of situation shows us what happens when we don’t put a floor of housing, food and health care beneath people,” Roman said. “We are all connected. And to have so many people on the edge, living to paycheck, people barely afford to sustain themselves — it’s not a very good way to run the country. Because it just leaves us very vulnerable.”

Back at the Fort Collins shelter, Anderson snacked on a cup of soup provided by the nonprofit Food Not Bombs. Anderson has lived in the city for about 30 years, experiencing homelessness several times. He lost his most recent housing when the IHOP he worked at shut last summer and he used up all his savings.

Like most Americans, he’s ready for the restrictions on movement to be lifted so he can go back to the library and to Starbucks, to walk around freely and hang out with his friends. He prefers camping in wooded area to staying in the encampment, and itches at the thought of being surrounded by so many other people.

“You kind of just want to get back to normal,” he said.