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What the stay-at-home order means for the homeless

On March 24, Mayor Steve Schewel ordered Durham residents to stay at home as much as possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But many people in the city do not have homes to go to. 

The stay-at-home order exempts homeless people, and they are being encouraged by ministries, advocates and government officials to seek shelter. Organizations that serve the homeless are working to establish protocol for those infected by the coronavirus. As of Friday, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Durham’s shelters.

The city and county departments and external services providers are in ongoing communication to establish “the screening, treatment, and housing protocol for the homeless population,” Colin Davis, manager for homeless systems for the City of Durham Community Development Department, explained in an email. 

Davis said services for the homeless are provided through the Durham Continuum of Care, a group of organizations and government agencies that works together to end homelessness and coordinates housing for the City of Durham and Durham County. The community development department is the lead agency for the group. 

There are two emergency homeless shelters in the city: Urban Ministries of Durham, which provides shelter for single adults and a small number of families, and Families Moving Forward, which focuses on shelter for families, according to Davis. 

There are not enough beds available for everyone who is experiencing homelessness in Durham, and beds are allotted in accordance with shelter’s admission policies, Davis said. The Urban Ministries of Durham has 149 beds total with an additional 30 overflow cots available and Families Moving Forward houses 21 families at a time.  

The Urban Ministries of Durham has restricted access to its campus because of the mayor’s order, which means people who do not live in the shelter can only come for food pick-up. All free meal services are now served in to-go packaging. Donations, such as the organization’s clothing closet, are suspended and volunteer staff is limited. 

Executive director Sheldon Mitchell emphasized that this is a big change for Urban Ministries of Durham, since over 100 people who do not reside on the campus typically come each day for meal services. 

The Urban Ministries of Durham has also created an Amazon wishlist to help stock items. According to their website, they are struggling to find thermometers, bottled water, Clorox bleach, spray disinfectant and hand sanitizer.  

“We have looked at trying to focus on the basic services for the residents we have on campus at this point,” said Mitchell. 

The shelter isn’t at maximum capacity yet, Mitchell said, but staff and residents are practicing social distancing. The city and county staff, as well as the Durham Emergency Communications Center, have been in discussion about where to relocate individuals to better alleviate the crowded space.  

Schewel said in his address that if a homeless person were to contract COVID-19, the city would work to create a facility where affected people could self-quarantine. He didn’t offer details about what that might look like. In San Francisco, homeless people have moved into vacant hotel rooms after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Mitchell has been in communication with city and county staff for at least two weeks to arrange plans for the homeless community during the virus outbreak. However, that process is challenging because of a malware attack on the city and county IT systems earlier in March that left some employees with limited email and phone capacities. 

More services are being organized and Mitchell has been pleased with support, but there’s been a delay in making plans for the homeless community, which Mitchell said is “one of the more vulnerable populations in this whole scenario.” 

“It is definitely important when we do have to make plans to address the community crisis such as this,” he said “that we do remember those who already have less resources or a lesser ability to react and respond.” 

Top photo: The Urban Ministries of Durham, which provides shelter for single adults and some families experiencing homelessness. Photo by Corey Pilson

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