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Pandemic increases strain on homeless population – News – Ionia Sentinel – Standard-Ionia, MI


HOLLAND — For those already facing homelessness, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated issues relating to health and safety.

Recommended practices like self-isolation, quarantining and frequent hand-washing are difficult, if not impossible, without access to stable housing.

For those who work to combat homelessness, the risks the homeless population face during the pandemic are evident.

“People experiencing homelessness, whether individuals or families, are more at risk of contracting COVID-19 because of their unstable living situation and their inability to control the environment around them,” said Barbara DiPietro, senior director of policy at the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

In congregate living settings, like shelters or missions, it can be difficult for individuals and families to isolate from one another due to limited space, but organizations providing temporary housing services have adjusted services to limit the risk of exposure for those staying there. Rachael Neal, development director at the Holland Rescue Mission, said the mission is following guidelines set by the Ottawa County Department of Public Health.

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Neal said individuals who either test positive or are exposed to a positive COVID-19 case are transferred to location to carry out their quarantine by the health department. Until they are transferred, they remain separated from others in the mission’s locations as a form of “temporary quarantine.”

Denise Knox and her family entered a quarantine after her son, a Holland Heights Elementary student, was exposed to another student who tested positive for COVID-19 on a school bus. While Knox said she and her children tested negative for the virus, she’s still concerned her son could have exposed others staying in the mission’s Family Hope Ministry Center while awaiting results.

“They’ve been running around everybody here since they’ve been going to school,” Knox told The Sentinel. “The whole thing is, with the importance of the situation, they’ve been around everyone here.”

For homeless people who are living outside of a shelter, quarantining and isolating can be difficult, said Drew Peirce, executive director of Good Samaritan Ministries in Holland. Even in congregate settings where multiple families or individuals are living closely together, the risk of exposure if someone has COVID-19 is elevated.

Economic issues caused by the pandemic

Good Samaritan Ministries works to connect individuals facing homelessness with housing locally. But the pandemic’s impact on the economy has created barriers to this, said Laura Driscoll, Good Samaritan’s director of housing services.

“The fact is that the job market’s been slower and that’s been a barrier for folks,” she said. Many landlords don’t take tenants who are without permanent work, Driscoll said, and the pandemic’s impact on the economy — forcing many businesses to close — has made it difficult for many to find stable work. In Michigan, over 14,000 people filed for jobless benefits the week ending Nov. 7.

“A big concern in terms of what gets people back to a place of stability, employment’s a big part of that,” Peirce said. “And the vast majority of folks we work with are in some kind of service industry — they’re in hospitality, they’re in food service, they’re in manufacturing.

“In those industries, (without) those opportunities to work and get their hours in, (they) continue to struggle. They’re living with so little margin, if any margin at all. They’re going to fall further and further behind.”

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Additional relief needed

DiPietro said there are ways the federal government can assist those facing homelessness during the pandemic — starting by passing additional relief spending that includes rental assistance, extended unemployment benefits and direct aid to state governments.

While DiPietro said the current CDC eviction moratorium in place until Dec. 31 is beneficial, she said it still needs to be extended and rental assistance needs to be provided so those struggling with rent won’t face a rush of bills or eviction once the moratorium is lifted.

“While all of these eviction bans have been great for keeping people in their homes, all that rent comes due on January one, and then includes late fees in the rest,” DiPietro said. “And so absent any ability to be able to pay that rent, people then will be experiencing a legal eviction.”

Congress has stalled on additional relief spending since passing the CARES Act in March. While the CARES Act included money for additional unemployment benefits, those dollars ran out at the end of July. With COVID-19 cases mounting in Michigan and across the country, there is concern over the potential shutdown of certain businesses to curtail the spread of the virus before winter.

Navigating the rest

DiPietro also said governments can address the issues facing the homeless during the pandemic by ensuring the most vulnerable have access to the healthcare. Some states, not including Michigan, don’t have basic Medicaid eligibility for people making below the federal poverty level.

“In states like Florida, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, people experiencing homelessness are largely uninsured, so they don’t have the coverage that allows them to maintain their health or get services in a way that is meaningful for them to be able to protect themselves against either COVID-19 or the kinds of secondary health outcomes that we’re seeing that are causing poor results,” DiPietro said.

She added states need to have plans to make sure that when a COVID-19 vaccine is available, it can be distributed widely, including to the homeless population.

Locally, Neal and Peirce said individuals who are facing homelessness can call 211 and be referred to resources there. These include services for eviction diversion, temporary housing and food assistance.

— Contact reporter Arpan Lobo at Follow him on Twitter @arpanlobo.


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