WILMINGTON — Port City Daily interviewed Katrina Knight, executive director of the city’s largest homeless shelter, to better understand why she was sending an open letter to city and county leadership, urging a more coherent and streamlined plan to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among a vulnerable portion of the population.
“[I]t seems appropriate that we go on the record and explain: this is how it plays out in other communities, and our window is really shrinking to try to get more in place so that when folks begin to be infected, we do all that we can as a community to prevent its spread any further than it has to.”
The following conversation has been slightly edited for formatting.
How is the Covid-19 pandemic affecting Wilmington’s homeless population?
We have in recent weeks seen our numbers increasing a bit, in part over worries around what’s going to happen in the economy and, and of course, folks are still having their life crises happen to them and are losing their housing. So numbers have been increasing. We’ve gotten up to first 75 [from about 60] and then 80, and then 85, and now approaching 90 adults and children every night, including quite a number with special needs.
We are as of this week starting to see — you know, just because somebody is without housing doesn’t mean they’re not reading the newspaper, or following the news. 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 do serve folks who are pretty well aware that they are a more compromised group, just in terms of their day-to-day health. Disproportionately, they have chronic conditions. They do tend to skew older, particularly some of our homeless veterans. They know they’re at greater risk, and this thing is scary for them just like it’s scary for the rest of us not knowing exactly what we’re dealing with and how, as a community and a country, we’re going to get our arms around it.
And on top of that, they may not have the resources other people may have to practice good hygiene or keep themselves safe in terms of sanitation, correct?
Right, correct. Now, once they’re here at Good Shepherd — for weeks we have been trying to develop more stocks of extra supplies. We’ve really stepped up improved education for individuals around proper handwashing. We’ve supplied soap, hand sanitizer, even masks.
We do have flu in the building; we do have pneumonia, bronchitis. And we’re trying to give those folks an opportunity, even though they’re in the shelter, to lie down and sort of isolate from the rest of the crowd, to stay hydrated with Gatorade and water and have their meals delivered to them in the room they’re staying in, instead of going out amongst the group. So, here at Good Shepherd, 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.
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.
For people staying at the shelter, how are they reacting to news of Covid-19?
So the message they’re getting from things they read and things they hear is that there’s all this talk of self-quarantine: if you even think you have symptoms, self-quarantine for two weeks. Well, they 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.
Not only is it not very reassuring — although we are trying to model calm and distracting folks in healthy ways — it’s beginning to wear on folks. And if we knew this was something we needed to weather for, say, two weeks and then it was all going to be over, it would be a lot more manageable for people emotionally and operationally. But because it is so open-ended and we don’t know what the bottom looks like, it’s particularly stressful to folks. 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.
We’re 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 say right now.
So that’s part of it. We feel like we’re already kind of at our max of who we can shelter but we also feel like we’re doing our level best and yet keep thinking, ‘How do we keep everyone safe?’ We essentially told all of our volunteers to stay home. Our staff has been reduced a bit, and people are worried about their own underlying health conditions or they feel under the weather. And so we’re already feeling a bit overwhelmed. We’re not sure how we’re going to see this thing through.
In your estimate, how large is the homeless population in the Wilmington area?
On a given night, we probably have at least 400 adults and children who don’t have housing, including the ones who are in shelters. But you’ve got quite a number of adults who stay out in the woods or who might sleep in their cars, often because of a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health challenge that they have. Part of their mental health struggles leave them anxious being around strangers, so an emergency shelter is not a great intervention for them.
Sometimes they feel more stressed out being in a structured setting where there’s a certain time where you have dinner and there’s a certain time when you go lie down for the night, a certain time when you get up and have breakfast. The structure that works in terms of caring for a large group of people at one time can be very anxiety- and stress-inducing for folks with certain kinds of mental illnesses. 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 looks really different for them. So it may make entire sense to them to stay where they can move about as freely as they want, for example.
So explain the open letter you are about to send to city and county leadership. What is its purpose?
Salvation Army and I are the signatories on a letter that basically sounds the alarm that we are on the precipice of a potentially even more significant community health crisis, and that is: when Covid hits our more vulnerable population, what happens?
Other communities nationwide and in other parts of North Carolina are mobilizing motels, some to situate people who are pending results, so that they’re not mixed in with everyone else until they know that they’re negative. Some are for asymptomatic homeless folks, to relieve the crowding and the large numbers in the homeless shelters, and to allow folks to be more individually housed for a period of time so that they’re less susceptible to contracting the virus. And then some separate motels are for folks who have tested positive, and that could be homeless folks and residents who are not homeless. As someone rightly pointed out to me earlier today, as a community we’re going to have people who do have housing, but because of their diagnosis, they need a safe place to go. They can’t go back home, perhaps without infecting more vulnerable people, especially elderly persons in their household or a very compromised person in their household.
In Charlotte, for example, county leadership has secured multiple hotels there and they are working closely with the nonprofits. But the county is providing the leadership in terms of the plan, and then through public health and the nonprofits, figuring out how to implement that plan.
And do you believe that New Hanover County and Wilmington leadership is not doing enough to address this concern?
As of today, as we speak, it seems like we’re lacking a strong community plan for this particular population. 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 really out ahead of this thing the way that we probably should be.
We’re sounding the alarm and essentially saying, ‘We’re already overwhelmed.’ We need a more coherent and strong community plan led by the city and New Hanover County where the nonprofits provide support, and of course the health department plays a significant role, but we can’t figure this out on our own.
In other communities and in other counties where they are mobilized and ready for when this hits, they already have the motels secured. They already know who from the health department will provide the health checks on people in the motels. It’s not just a matter of placing folks; it’s what professional health support has been provided to these people. That’s not our wheelhouse, and we just don’t have that wherewithal.
In the meantime, we don’t have the wherewithal to quarantine people within our shelters. And so we need more dialogue, and we need very quick action to come to the table together and figure out a collaborative plan — collaborative, but led by the city and county.
I think people on all fronts are overtaxed right now, regardless of what their title or role is here or there. And so it’s not that this isn’t on local leadership’s radar, but we’re the ones living it day-to-day and we’re the ones seeing it pretty quickly ratcheting up. So it seems appropriate that we go on the record and explain: this is how it plays out in other communities, and our window is really shrinking to try to get more in place so that when folks begin to be infected, we do all what we can as a community to prevent its spread any further than it has to. That’s really the concern. Yes, Salvation Army and United Way are exploring motel stays, but a couple of nonprofit entities cannot figure this out on our own. It really has to be led by public health, by your local leadership.
I know we can do that. But I think we have to get this top-of-mind, this issue. Once there’s a patient zero within one of our shelters, we’re going to have a much more significant public health crisis. And we need help; we need more support. So this is not about finger-pointing or being negative in any kind of way. 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.
I know it’s hard to predict, but what’s your best estimate on the kind of capacity you think you’ll need in terms of beds and rooms?
I don’t know that I’m the best gauge of that. That might come from the hospital or from the health department. And part of it is the uncertainty — how quickly does one or two cases become 10 or 20 or 50? I don’t know. I read and read and read at all hours, what’s going on in other communities and what they’re experiencing, and I don’t know how this is going to play out. I will say that Salvation Army is already sheltering at least 50 adults and children. Good Shepherd is already sheltering 90.
The thing is, once we’ve had a positive case, or once it starts — perhaps, God forbid — going around the staff, we may not be able to have our doors open. And then what? So today I have 90 with me, but what if there’s no one here to care for them? What if we don’t have enough healthy people to do that?
There’s no conversation around what happens then. And that’s why we’re trying to prompt some quick dialogue amongst various stakeholders around what happens then and who cares for these folks? Because in other communities, the helpers become compromised, and I hate to go there in my mind, but it’s not hard to imagine that the helpers — the direct providers — are going to become compromised at some point.
It makes sense to issue guidance that at the first sign of symptoms, everybody stay calm and self-quarantine. Well, we are attempting to keep our doors open, but at what point do we figure out something different for people?
For people sleeping in makeshift camps in the woods around town and other places, what are they doing now?
You might find some of them are, if they weren’t already, they may now be reluctant to come to shelter because they don’t want to be around a bunch of people at a time when everyone’s been cautioned not to be around a bunch of people.
It’s tough to sort this out. But if we’re going to figure it out, it’s going to be as a community. We want to sound the alarm that, yeah, some effort is underway, but it’s very piecemeal and insufficient right now, in the face of what we might be experiencing in very short order.
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