There are nearly 2,000 people utilizing emergency shelters and over 200 people are experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the greater Cleveland area. This pandemic will continue to disproportionately impact the unhoused people in our community, especially since many of the unhoused are over 60 and struggle with COPD, asthma, HIV, and other chronic health conditions. A new report from the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, and Boston University estimates that as many as 40% of people experiencing homelessness could contract the virus, up to 10% could require hospitalization and 2 to 3x as likely to die than the general population. The time to act is now.
First, the quick response from our homeless Continuum of Care to reduce shelter census by acquiring hotel rooms for up to half of the single adult shelter population in Cuyahoga County is commendable and will hopefully reduce the impact of COVID-19 among the unhoused population in our community. However, this is only a first step, and broader emergency planning and input must consider our community’s entire Continuum of Care. The unsheltered population, people staying in smaller shelters, and those utilizing smaller service providers have been left out of government planning and funding. Conversations have been siloed and there has been a lack of transparency from local government officials planning for the most vulnerable for our community. Emergency planning must consider the input and resources of groups who are not included in planning conversations but are ultimately left to serve those who are unsheltered.
We want to avoid having coronavirus run rampant in homeless encampments, on the streets, and in congregate shelters during the COVID-19 outbreak. NEOCH believes it is urgent for public officials to continue treating homelessness as a public health emergency so that we are minimizing the risk of infections and death among the people experiencing homelessness in our community. Now is the time for inclusion, cooperation, and innovation to respond to the needs of all people who find themselves in a housing crisis during this pandemic.
The first disbursement of funds from the CARES Act that will be allocated for homelessness and housing will be coming to our community, but there are remaining public health concerns that we believe have not been adequately addressed to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness, many of whom will either remain unsheltered or in congregate shelter settings for the remainder of the outbreak:
- NEOCH calls for the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County to immediately provide hotels rooms for all identified people experiencing homelessness. Every homeless shelter and allocated hotel space provided to people experiencing homelessness is either full or struggling to meet social distancing requirements. It is not safe for people to enter into congregate living situations based on CDC recommendations that discourage gatherings greater than 10 individuals. Our community needs to provide comprehensive support to those “sheltering-in-place” outside. Rather than wait for people to grow ill and require quarantine or hospitalization, we can be proactive by putting people into isolated units. The CDC’s guidance for responding to COVID-19 among people experiencing unsheltered homelessness reinforces that sleeping outdoors often does not provide protection from the environment, quick access to hygiene and sanitation facilities, or connection to healthcare.
- NEOCH calls for immediate action from the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County to provide hand washing stations, portable toilets, and charging stations to help protect those outside. It has been 3 weeks since crucial spaces like public libraries, drop in centers, and churches began closing their doors. This means that there are fewer and fewer places for people on the streets to have basic access to water, and bathroom access to allow for proper handwashing and hygiene. It should be a priority to provide the basic human right of soap and water outside during a pandemic for our most vulnerable neighbors. We already have reports of people not drinking water and urinating on themselves because they lack access to restrooms.
- NEOCH calls for Cuyahoga County and the City of Cleveland to immediately secure up to 900 isolated units before the projected surge for people experiencing homelessness who are statistically likely to test positive. We are currently not prepared for the projected impact the virus will have on the unhoused community. Based on the above infection rate of 40% among the homeless population, it is estimated that 880 of our community’s 2,200 total homeless population will become infected. We have not secured enough hotel rooms for individuals who have no option for isolation and recovery outside of the homeless system if they test positive. Furthermore, the limited rooms that are being secured are not being offered to the entire homeless Continuum of Care.
- NEOCH calls on the City of Cleveland and the Municipal Housing Court to expand the eviction moratorium until September 1st, 2020. Many people at risk of eviction are low-income working class Clevelanders and people living below the poverty line. They are already facing a loss of income due to protective measures we are taking as a society to minimize the threat of the COVID-19 outbreak. Without the guarantee of secure housing during this critical time, the most vulnerable Ohians will be unable to mitigate the threat of COVID-19.
- NEOCH calls for the prioritization of testing among people experiencing homelessness. We know that people that are experiencing homeless have tested positive. Contact tracing will be essential to control COVID-19 once adequate testing is made available. Until then, it is essential that we prioritize testing among people experiencing homelessness who are most at risk for contracting the virus. Knowing who is positive will help our system plan and coordinate how individuals can be relocated from congregate settings. Local shelters, NEOCH, and other providers are following the same advice as the general public: screen for key symptoms and make the appropriate medical referral. Our community is deeply at risk if we do not establish testing protocol and prioritization for people experiencing homelessness.
- NEOCH calls on the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County to direct the Office of Homeless Services to prioritize everyone who is experiencing homelessness in our community by allocated resources for people who are equally in need of services. Thus far, the Office of Homeless Services has only offered funding for 10 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness when there are approximately 200 that are unsheltered in our community. The majority of services that have been provided to unsheltered people have been privately-funded and volunteer-driven. By not coordinating a more inclusive and comprehensive plan for all people experiencing homelessness, some of the most vulnerable people in our community may miss out on access to needed healthcare and dignified quarantine options that could be lifesaving.
The mission of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless is to organize and empower homeless and at-risk men, women and children to break the cycle of poverty through public education, advocacy and the creation of nurturing environments.