WILMINGTON — Leaders of Wilmington’s two largest homeless shelters sent an open letter to Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and New Hanover County Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman, calling on each to take immediate action to protect the city’s homeless population from the regional spread of Covid-19.
Good Shepherd Center Executive Director Katrina Knight and Salvation Army Cape Fear Major Mark Craddock signed off on the letter, which stated, “[A]t present there exists no long-term community plan to address the survival needs of homeless Wilmington and New Hanover County residents.”
“In the coming days, the City and Council must take action to address the immediate needs of homeless residents, or risk mass infection and lives lost throughout the community. Existing emergency shelters do not have the capacity or wherewithal to quarantine persons with COVID-19,” the letter further stated.
According to Knight, shelters are becoming overwhelmed with rising numbers — a jump from around 60 to nearly 90 in recent weeks at Good Shepherd Center — skewed towards those who are old or have chronic conditions and are particularly vulnerable to the serious effects of Covid-19. Beginning this week, she said she has noticed particularly heightened concerns among the area’s homeless population.
“Just because somebody is without housing doesn’t mean they’re not reading the newspaper or following the news,” Knight said. “And just like what’s happening with the rest of our community and the rest of the country, folks are really alarmed by what they’re hearing. It just sounds so borderline catastrophic — sort of the unknown of what’s going to unfold in this community, how many people are going to be sick?”
‘We’re lacking a strong community plan’
For Knight, the letter was intended to “sound the alarm that we are on the precipice of a potentially even more significant community health crisis [than what people are currently aware of], and that is: when Covid hits our more vulnerable population, what happens?”
“Once there’s a patient zero within one of our shelters, we’re going to have a much more significant public health crisis,” Knight said. “And we need help; we need more support.”
Knight and Craddock called on the city and county to develop and oversee a plan to secure vacant hotels or motels to isolate homeless individuals with symptoms of Covid-19 or who have tested positive, and others with no active symptoms but are vulnerable to exposure, alongside a professional health support system — just as cities like Charlotte have done.
They also urged local government leaders to provide hand-washing stations, portable toilets, hygiene kits, and hand sanitizer to those living on the street, and to give tents to those unwilling or unable to come to a shelter.
Lastly, they implored leaders to prepare for the potential closure of existing shelters, calling it a “very real scenario that our already limited staff will become compromised as they fall ill or develop symptoms that require quarantine themselves.”
“Once one of our residents tests positive for COVID-19 and we find that the group has been exposed, continuing to operate may well be impossible … We are already overwhelmed,” they said.
Thursday afternoon — before she sent the letter to the mayor, city council, county chairwoman, county manager, county emergency management officials, and hospital personnel — Knight said she believed the city and county’s leadership was not doing enough to address these concerns.
“As of today, as we speak, it seems like we’re lacking a strong community plan for this particular population,” Knight said. “We’re talking with Salvation Army, Salvation Army’s talking with United Way — we’re trying to figure out some of those motel options. But it feels a bit piecemeal. And we’re already being reactive; we’re not out ahead of this thing the way that we probably should be.”
County responds: ‘A right-sized approach’
Early Thursday evening, county leaders joined a conference call with Port City Daily to address the concerns raised by Knight and Craddock. New Hanover County Public Health Preparedness Coordinator Lisa Brown said that although she appreciated Knight’s passionate advocating for the homeless population, “one she serves well,” she disagreed with the notion that the county was not prepared.
The county’s focus, according to Brown, will be on disrupting the potential spread of Covid-19 in congregate settings like homeless shelters by locating alternate housing for individuals who become ill.
“[A]t this point, we’re doing what I think is a right-sized approach with this very targeted approach, by trying to keep those shelters in place, then facilitate with the coordination and the location for where someone who is ill can go to recover, to try to sustain those environments, and to help our nonprofit partners continue to provide their services the way they know how to do for their population,” Brown said.
Steven Still, the county’s emergency management director, said the county will test anyone with housing issues, while it is working to find alternate locations through the New Hanover Disaster Coalition — a collaborative group that includes Good Shepherd and Salvation Army themselves — and the New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
“It’s a bit of an organization [effort required] — to work on transportation, housing, feeding, and cleaning,” Still said. “So it’s a group effort to be sure.”
And it is a complicated situation for the county, according to Brown: unlike hurricanes that require mass sheltering, the Covid-19 pandemic requires finding shelters for those recovering while also ensuring they are isolated.
“There’s a lot of CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance that we had shared early on to kind of help the shelters prepare and be more cognizant of what their needs were going to be, and how to increase sanitation and alter some of their practices to the best of their ability,” Brown said.
About 20 minutes before the phone call with Port City Daily, Still emailed county commissioners and city councilmembers in response to the open letter.
“I’d like to share some of the ways we, at the Emergency Operations Center, are supporting those experiencing homelessness amid COVID-19,” Still wrote. “Planning has been underway and actions are being taken, in concert with public health, to address and mitigate the threat of COVID-19 to our residents with no, or unstable housing.”
He referred to the CDC guidance that specifically addressed sheltering and housing services, “advising establishments like Good Shepherd and Salvation Army to put into practice measures that reduce the probability of spread of COVID-19 in a congregate spreading.”
“Our expectation is that our community nonprofits have heeded this guidance and have put preparedness plans in place. Now, as we have cases of COVID-19 in our community, we have entered the phase of implementing strategies for the coordination of alternate housing,” he wrote.
Knight, however, said she was only informed of the county’s plan after she sent the open letter, which she did before 2 p.m. on Thursday. At 3:30 p.m., Knight said she was “being told vaguely that ‘they’re working up a plan.’ I’ll know more late this afternoon.” Just before 6 p.m., Still emailed county commissioners and city councilmembers.
The county’s plan, according to Still, is to place homeless individuals awaiting test results or recovering from Covid-19 in alternate housing while Salvation Army provides meals, and transportation is coordinated through the county’s Emergency Operations Center.
“Already we are in the process of placing two individuals with such needs,” Still said.
But according to Knight, she held a conference call with county health officials on Friday, in which they rebuffed her recommendation that city and county leadership oversee the securing of hotels to isolate homeless individuals and prepare for a spread among that population.
Not set up to quarantine
For weeks, the Good Shepherd Center has been trying to stock up on extra sanitation supplies — including soap, hand sanitizer, and masks — while educating guests on proper hand-washing and isolation for those who have pneumonia, bronchitis, or the flu, according to Knight.
“They do have more access to hygiene opportunities and the supplies and constant reinforcement of being careful and attempting to distance others, but it is difficult,” Knight said. “And that’s part of the struggle with emergency shelters — we’re not set up to quarantine people. We’re not even set up to isolate somebody who has the flu … And we’re just really struggling to figure out how we keep everyone safe when, by nature, the design of an emergency shelter doesn’t fit with what the protocols and guidance says right now.”
Although they hear the public message to self-quarantine for two weeks once possible symptoms are noticed, she said members of the homeless community do not have that option.
“[T]hey know they can’t self-quarantine. And so it just adds to their stress, at a time when they already feel out of control and they’ve lost everything, on top of all the indications that the world around them is losing it in a tizzy.”
She also said many homeless people who struggle with mental health issues have taken to wooded areas around the city, to escape the anxiety of being around strangers at a shelter.
Early Thursday evening, Chloe, 14, was walking on a path through a wooded area behind the Lowe’s Home Improvement off College Avenue. The area is a homeless camp, scattered with shopping carts, tarp tents, and clothes hanging from a wire strung between two trees. She said she lives in an apartment complex on the other side of the woods.
“Right now they need help more than they ever have,” she said, referring to the spreading pandemic. “And the community just doesn’t want to help them, it’s not fair to them. Maybe they’re here for reasons that they put themselves into this situation, maybe they didn’t put themselves into this situation. You never know why they’re here. And I think it’s important to consider why they’re here instead of saying, ‘Well they’re homeless, they messed up, that’s their problem.’ It’s not always like that.”
Knight further elaborated.
“Some may say, ‘That person is choosing to be out in the woods,’ but their brain chemistry is probably not what yours or mine is, and the way they are weighing their options just looks really different for them,” Knight said.
Charlie Wood, 65, was walking on a path that cut through a greenbelt across from the Good Shepherd Center on Thursday evening. He has stayed at the shelter in the past but is now sleeping in the woods to the north of the building, beyond the railroad tracks, according to Wood. He said he struggles with multiple sclerosis (MS), and apologized several times for dropping his cigarette.
After running yarn draw machines at DuPont for 16 years, he developed MS and was later hit by a wrecker truck, according to Wood.
“That’s when my life went downhill because I was paying a lot of money. It destroyed my hip, and I had to do three years of rehab to learn how to walk again,” Wood said.
He said he sold his house to help with medical expenses and a lack of income, as finding a job was difficult due to his MS. When asked if he was concerned about the growing number of Covid-19 cases in the region, he said it was an opportune time to not stay at the shelter.
“I don’t really care about it, really, because I sleep outside. People inside buildings like this, with large crowds, those people get sick in there all the time with flu and pneumonia,” Wood said.
He said he has been to a mental institution several times, because when he is around a lot of people, “it drives [him] crazy.”
“Because it is so open-ended and we don’t know what the bottom looks like, it’s particularly stressful to folks,” Knight said. “And we see their anxiety ramping up. We see folks who’ve never had an argument here, or an altercation with someone, losing their temper and feeling like they just can’t handle being around other people right now. And they want to leave.”
Ultimately, Knight said the open letter to city and county leadership was “not about finger-pointing or being negative.”
“It’s really more of a heads up that we feel like we’re on the verge of a very significant community health crisis beyond the one that folks are currently discussing and aware of,” she said.
Read the open letter sent to Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and New Hanover County Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman below:
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