What is the District doing to protect individuals dealing with homelessness from the COVID-19 pandemic?

What is the District doing to protect individuals dealing with homelessness from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Maryland, D.C. and Virginia have all passed stay-at-home orders, prohibiting non-essential workers from leaving their home except for groceries, medical purposes and exercise. In the D.C. region, over 4,000 have tested positive for the coronavirus. Experts believe that social isolation and physical distancing are the best methods to combat the coronavirus pandemic. But how does the stay-at-home order affect those who can’t afford housing?

According to a survey by D.C.’s Department of Health Services in early 2019, more than 6,000 people experience homelessness in the District, including those in transitional housing and shelters. Even worse, people experiencing homelessness are generally more likely to have underlying conditions, which makes them vulnerable to contract the virus.

What is the District doing to protect people experiencing homelessness? How are organizations working to protect the homeless population from the coronavirus?

Produced by Richard Cunningham


  • Jenny Gathright WAMU Reporter; @jennygathright
  • Scott Schenkelberg CEO, Miriam's Kitchen
  • Laura Zeilinger Director, D.C. Department of Human Services; @ZLauraJeanne

Local Organizations Work to Protect Vulnerable Communities from COVID-19

Local Organizations Work to Protect Vulnerable Communities from COVID-19 - The Kojo Nnamdi Show

Maryland, D.C. and Virginia have all enacted their own version of a stay-at-home order. The orders direct residents to remain in their homes, with exceptions for essential activities like grocery shopping, seeking medical assistance and solitary exercise. While these measures serve the greater good and will help curb the spread of coronavirus.


  • 12:00:02

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show from WAMU 88.5. I'm broadcasting from home. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll hear from people who's milestone events are being derailed because of the coronavirus pandemic. But first, Maryland, Virginia and Washington have all issued stay at home orders directing residents to remain in their houses, but what about those suffering from homelessness? There are more than 6,000 people in the District without permanent housing.

  • 12:00:28

    KOJO NNAMDIEarlier this week, five residents from three shelters tested positive for the coronavirus and are not quarantined. What is the District doing to protect those experiencing homelessness from getting sick? And how are organizations adjusting their approach to provide services from them? Joining me now is Jenny Gathright, who is a WAMU Reporter. Jenny, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:50

    JENNY GATHRIGHTThanks, Kojo.

  • 12:00:51

    NNAMDIHow are homeless shelters around the area dealing with this pandemic?

  • 12:00:56

    GATHRIGHTMy sense is that they're doing their best in a really difficult situation just trying to create as much distancing possible in spaces that just tend to be crowded. So I know in Montgomery County there's a plan to expand the shelter system out to some new locations and try and create some more physical distancing for people. And in D.C. the load barrier shelters have kind of changed their operations to adjust to the crisis. So they're now open all day and providing all three meals. So people don't have to leave in the morning and they aren't moving around the city as much.

  • 12:01:28

    GATHRIGHTBut, you know, Kojo, these shelters have a lot of people in them. The city's largest men's shelter has between 800 and 1,000 beds. And some of these shelters have as many as 60 people in a room and, you know, 30 bunk beds. So doctors from Unity Health, which provides a lot of the care for the city's population of people experiencing homelessness -- they're trying to get to each of the low barrier shelters once or twice a week to proactively screen people for symptoms of the coronavirus. And then if people are symptomatic in those settings they can get tests that will be run by the city's public health lab. But obviously worries are growing because of these positive tests you just mentioned in the shelter system. And so people are definitely on alert.

  • 12:02:08

    NNAMDIThere have been reports of positive cases at the city's public psychiatric hospital, St. Elizabeth's, as well. What's going on there?

  • 12:02:15

    GATHRIGHTSo the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health confirms that five employees at St. Elizabeth's and one patient there have tested positive for the coronavirus. And as a result an additional 22 employees there are in self-quarantine. The Washington Post reported yesterday that the employees who tested positive, they were working in a unit that houses people who are getting psychiatric treatment as they wait for trial dates. So basically these are people, who have been charged with a crime and they're now kind of being assessed to see if they can understand the legal proceedings that they need to go through next.

  • 12:02:49

    NNAMDIAlso joining us is Laura Zeilinger, Director of D.C.'s Department of Human Services. Laura Zeilinger, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:02:57

    LAURA ZEILENGEROh, thank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:03:00

    NNAMDICan you tell us what precautions have been put in place to ensure the safety of homeless people?

  • 12:03:05

    ZEILENGERSure. Jenny was correct about many of the measures she noted around our shelters. We have based -- are doing screening every day at each and every one of our shelters. And we have partnered with Unity to enhance that screening making sure that we're aware of any risk factors that people maybe -- or symptoms that people may be experiencing so that we can help them get into an isolation quarantine site and medical treatment and testing is needed. We're mitigating the need for movement throughout our system by creating -- having people stay in the same bed in the same shelter every night, and limiting movement between facilities as well as by having not only meals at all of our sites, all three meals, but also doing grab and go meals so that people are not congregating around meals.

  • 12:04:00

    ZEILENGERWe're enhancing our communication to our residents and our partners who are running the shelters. We are enhancing our cleaning protocols. And we're strategically providing priority access to single room quarantine opportunities for people who are waiting for test results, who, of course, if they were positive -- tested positive for COVID-19, if they have been exposed to somebody and also for our most vulnerable populations, who would be most at risk should they contract the disease.

  • 12:04:34

    NNAMDILaura Zeilinger, do we know how many people experiencing homelessness have tested positive for the coronavirus?

  • 12:04:42

    ZEILENGERYes. We do. We're tracking this closely with our partners at D.C. Health. And we're aware right now of eight individuals, who reside in shelter, who have tested positive. That's across three of our shelter sites.

  • 12:04:57

    NNAMDIAlso joining us is Scott Schenkelberg, President and CEO of Miriam's Table. Scott, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:05:06

    SCOTT SCHENKELBERGThank you, Kojo. Thank you for having. It's Miriam's Kitchen.

  • 12:05:09

    NNAMDIMiriam's Kitchen. I'm sorry.

  • 12:05:11

    SCHENKELBERGThat's okay.

  • 12:05:12

    NNAMDIFor people who may not be familiar what kinds of services does Miriam's Kitchen normally provide?

  • 12:05:18

    SCHENKELBERGMiriam's Kitchen's ultimate vision is to end chronic homelessness. And in terms to our direct services to individuals we provide meals, case management, street outreach. We also do advocacy to, you know, try an increase the amount of affordable housing for people experiencing homelessness.

  • 12:05:36

    NNAMDIHave you had to alter your programs during this public health crisis? What impact has the pandemic had?

  • 12:05:42

    SCHENKELBERGIt's had a pretty significant impact. On March 16, we moved all of our meal and case management services outside. We're housed in a church, Western Presbyterian Church. And our normal program operates in basically a large dining room in the church basement. And in order to engage in social distancing we moved all services outside. We normally would serve meals. People would sit down in the dining room, eat their meals. Talk with a case manager. That just wasn't an effective strategy to try and mitigate the spread of the virus. So we moved everything outside. We went to an entirely to-go meal.

  • 12:06:19

    SCHENKELBERGSo in the same way you might go in and get a to-go meal in a box, you know, we moved all of those services outside. We are now doing them in tents. We have portable bathroom for, you know, sanitation and hygiene. And if people need to speak with a case manager to check mail or find out about what's open and what's closed in CEC, because a lot has changed over the last couple of weeks we have somebody there who can provide that information.

  • 12:06:44

    NNAMDIAbout how many people do you serve daily? And what have you heard from them, the clients you serve since all of this began? How are they experiencing this pandemic?

  • 12:06:52

    SCHENKELBERGYeah, as it's progressed, you know, at first I think a lot of our clients weren't necessarily aware of what was going on. And perhaps like all of us we, you know, this has changed rapidly. And so now most of our clients are very much aware of, you know, the need for social distancing, etcetera. Their biggest concerns continue to be around places to use the restroom, places to get water. You know, those are the kinds of the things that we're really focusing on right now.

  • 12:07:25

    SCHENKELBERGMany of the places they go throughout the day -- there are day centers in D.C. that have closed that they used to go to. The libraries, which was a place that many of our folks would hang out during the day are now closed. Restaurants, you know, coffee shops, etcetera, places that they might go to use the restroom and get water many of those are closed or just doing to-go service. So their recurring need is to just maintain hydration. Have a place to clean up and use the facilities.

  • 12:07:56

    NNAMDIHere is Christy Respress in Washington. Christy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:08:03

    CHRISTYGreat. Thanks so much, Kojo. And really it's good to hear Scott and Laura talking about this critical topic. We are one of the providers that also is doing street outreach with the city and we provide permanent housing for people coming out of homelessness. Two things ...

  • 12:08:18

    NNAMDIYou ought to mention who is we.

  • 12:08:20

    CHRISTYI'm sorry. I thought you said, From Pathways to Housing D.C. I'm sorry I thought you said that.

  • 12:08:24

    NNAMDIYeah, there you go.

  • 12:08:25

    CHRISTYSo I'm the Executive Director of Pathways to Housing here in D.C. And my really -- I wanted to say thank you to Laura Zeilinger directly and the Department of Human Services, because this is so unprecedented and the planning and the responsiveness that has gone into a good response has been really amazing. And our partners like Miriam's. And I do have one question for Laura Zeilinger is really the challenge around helping people who are experiencing homeless now can continue to move into housing. And that kind of urgency we have in helping people, of course, stay face and shelter. But how do we continue to ramp up in this tough time getting folks into housing.

  • 12:09:05


  • 12:09:07

    ZEILENGERChristy, thanks for that question. Our focus first has really been in making sure that people are safe and that we are limiting exposure and making sure that people if they're having any symptoms can get the care that they need and mitigate transmission. We know that when we're all asked to stay home that the movement throughout the city that is required in the housing process becomes ever more challenging. So we are shifting to more and more remote business operations in that area also.

  • 12:09:41

    ZEILENGERWe had to take a pause while we looked at and worked with our housing partners at the Housing Authority in DHCD as well as our providers to look at how do we do that. We started some remote voucher briefings this week. We are looking at virtual housing tours. DCHA will continue to do inspections in unoccupied units and we will continue the administrative and backend processes that we can do remotely around reviewing applications, scheduling inspections, preparing documents.

  • 12:10:10

    ZEILENGERBut I think we unfortunately will -- while we still will have those housing resources as we come out of this crisis. Right now the most important thing is that people are staying in place as much as possible, because people being out and potentially becoming exposed and coming back into congregate environments creates such a health and safety risk that we need to be able to avoid that as well.

  • 12:10:33

    NNAMDIJenny Gathright, are people experiencing homelessness at a greater risk of spreading or and or contracting COVID-19?

  • 12:10:42

    GATHRIGHTOne thing health officials stress about this virus over and over is how contagious it is and, you know, that's why we're all being told to practice social distancing and not really interact with people outside of our households, but obviously if your home is a large shelter where many other people are around you all the time, that's really hard to do. And so that obviously is a concern, these large congregate settings. And that's why the screening and testing priority is so important.

  • 12:11:10

    GATHRIGHTAnd there's also, you know, some concern for people who are staying outside of the shelters. And, you know, Scott spoke a little bit to this. But how people's routines have really changed and how people who are on the streets do not have as much access to basic hygiene just in general. But I think another really important question isn't just about getting it or spreading it. It's just about how sick some people, who are experiencing homelessness could really get and how vulnerable people are.

  • 12:11:35

    GATHRIGHTI spoke with Dr. Cathrine Crosland with Unity Health and, you know, they provide much of the medical care to the city's homeless population. And, you know, they're collaborating with DHS to try and proactively isolate some of the people who are oldest and have some of the most serious underlying conditions. But Dr. Crosland estimated that, you know, over 1,000 people under her care are either over 60 or have some sort --

  • 12:11:59

    NNAMDIYou only got about 15 seconds.

  • 12:12:00

    GATHRIGHTThat would make it hard for them to fight. And so I think there's a concern about, you know, people getting hit hard by this virus.

  • 12:12:06

    NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:30

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Later in the broadcast we'll be hearing from people whose milestone events are being derailed, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Right now we're talking about services being provided for the homeless during this time of the pandemic in Washington. And Laura Zeilinger is Director of D.C.'s Department of Human Services. Laura, I've heard DHS is in the process of building handwashing stations around the city. Where will they be put and when can we expect to see them?

  • 12:12:58

    ZEILENGERYes, Kojo. That's correct. We have procured seven handwashing stations. And we've already deployed some of them as well as Porta-Potties throughout the city. We are putting them places where people are going for grab and go meals. As Scott mentioned several of the churches and other day programs where people did go for meals are now closed. But we are still trying to make meals available for people and community and have -- center some of those resources around those sites. We will list exact location of all of them on the DHS website where all of the meal resources and other services we're providing are listed.

  • 12:13:41

    NNAMDIHere is Star in Northwest Washington. Star, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:13:47

    STARThank you very much for taking my call. I wondered if considering that the hotel space is not being utilized by business and tourist traffic. If the government had given any thought to freeing up that space to accommodate the homeless and the need for greater spacing. And kind of a related question, several years ago a lot of the shelters were moved out of the city -- out of areas in the city where citizens would congregate. That happened in Mount Pleasant and it made it really difficult for people to experience anything of city life. I mean, they often didn't have bus transportation even to get into the city centers from those places like in a warehouse area near New York Avenue.

  • 12:14:41

    STARHas any consideration been given -- or what consideration is being given to provide some kind of stimulus or some kind of human contact or whatever to people especially in these stressful circumstances. Thank you very much.

  • 12:14:58

    NNAMDILaura Zeilinger.

  • 12:15:00

    ZEILENGERSo, yes. Thank you for that question. We are using hotels as sites -- for quarantine as well as separation for residents who are experiencing homelessness, who have highest vulnerability. Jenny spoke to the collaboration we have with Unity in identifying medically vulnerable and elderly clients throughout our system in order to do so. We do have several transportation options that we use. But mostly we really are helping people get their needs met by limiting movement as is true with everybody throughout community right now that we are trying to really stay in place as much as possible, and make what can be accessible to people accessible in other ways. But we do provide transportation for medical appointments and things that are needed for clients.

  • 12:16:02

    NNAMDIScott Schenkelberg, what resources and supplies do organizations like yours need to protect people from the coronavirus?

  • 12:16:10

    SCHENKELBERGWell, primarily Miriam's Kitchen, you know, we need, you know, the kinds -- we're doing things that normally would not be part of our budget. You know, all the equipment that we're running in terms of the portable bathrooms, the tents, etcetera, are, you know, things that we didn't plan for. No one planned for this. And therefore, you know, we're spending more money than we had allotted for this. So there's a real need to be able to meet the needs of -- you know, just kind of create social distancing and still a continuity of services for our guests. Things that are in short supply and this is true across the system are masks, hand sanitizers, you know, things in that nature. Bottled water, those kinds of things that, you know, you feel like are really critical to helping keep our guests healthy.

  • 12:17:01

    NNAMDIJennifer Gathright, the federal government is going to be sending out emergency stimulus checks to Americans, who qualify based on their income. Will people experiencing homelessness be eligible for these checks?

  • 12:17:13

    GATHRIGHTThe short answer is yes. You're eligibility is not contingent on your housing status. But I think a question for a lot of people is whether the federal government or the IRS is actually going to be able to find a place to send the money to. Say, if you haven't filed tax returns in the last two years, if you're unbanked. So actually this is something I'd love to hear from you Director Zeilinger. I mean, does the city have any plans in terms of how it will help people navigate the process if they need to file a return or fill out a form in the IRS website to sort of get connected to that stimulus check.

  • 12:17:46

    NNAMDILaura Zeilinger.

  • 12:17:47

    ZEILENGERSo we are working with the federal government across a number of different ways that we can help people access resources that they're entitled to under the federal stimulus. That's included new pandemic supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits or P-SNAP is the program there. As well as enhanced SNAP benefits and ensuring rapid enrollment in public benefits. We are in discussion about ways that we can collaborate as well about accessing stimulus and hope to be able to be helpful in that area as well, but nothing yet to report. There's still -- the federal government is still doing a fair amount of work to determine how they will disperse those funds.

  • 12:18:38

    NNAMDIHere's Kelly in Northwest Washington. Kelly, your turn.

  • 12:18:43

    KELLYHi. This is Kelly Sweeney McShane. I'm the CEO of Community of Hope. Thanks for this really important conversation. Community of Hope is a service provider for families experiencing homelessness including short term family housing, homelessness prevention, and a range of housing options. I just want to echo what Christy Respress said. The Department of Human Services has provided excellent guidance, very clear guidance for all of us throughout this process.

  • 12:19:07

    KELLYAnd as a provider we really appreciate that. Director Zeilinger, I thought it would be helpful if you could talk a little bit about the homelessness prevention program at this time, because even though there is a pause on evictions we know that families are still vulnerable and might be at risk of becoming homeless. And that would be excellent information if you could share and update on how that is going now.

  • 12:19:28

    NNAMDILaura Zeilinger.

  • 12:19:29

    ZEILENGERYeah. Thank you, Kelly, for that question. So we continue to offer homelessness prevention program resources. We know that homelessness prevention can be a very valuable resource in terms of financial assistance to keep people from becoming homeless whether they are living with others and the need to be able to contribute financially to the households where they are staying whether it is to be able maintain the housing that they're in independently or to just mitigate family conflict and other things that sometimes are at the root of people seeking homeless services.

  • 12:20:08

    ZEILENGERAnd so we encourage anybody who is encountering that kind of instability to reach out to us by calling either the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center where we can connect -- make that connection to our homelessness prevention program or they can also reach us through the shelter hotline where we would make that connection as well. The shelter hotline number is 202-399-7093.

  • 12:20:41

    NNAMDIAnd we got a tweet from Jesse Rabinowitz who says, "This study projects people who are homeless who contract COVID-19 are twice as likely to be hospitalized, four times as likely to require critical care and two to three times as likely to die than the general population. Housing the unhoused is needed to flattening the curve." And we only have about a minute left, Laura Zeilinger. But can you share anything about DHS's broader contingency plan in an event of a larger outbreak in the shelter system. Where would people go?

  • 12:21:09

    ZEILENGERSo we continue to contract for more sites like hotels where people can be in individual rooms to limit their exposure. We also are looking at other sites that -- if that becomes untenable where we can provide more ability for people to distance. But our priority is really helping people have access. Particularly those that Jesse is asking about to be able to be in their own room with their own bathroom and in a place where they can have the same kind of social distancing as a protective measure.

  • 12:21:44

    NNAMDILaura Zeilinger is Director of D.C.'s Department of Human Services. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:21:48

    ZEILENGERThank you for having me. I just want to shout out to all the people, who are operating our homelessness services programs and our staff across our government agencies and DHS in particular. It takes all of us to provide these services that happen in the midst of a public health emergency and every single day. And we have a tremendous partnership and resilience among the people who do this work.

  • 12:22:12

    NNAMDIScott Schenkelberg and Jenny Gathright, thank you two for joining us. When we come back we'll hear from people whose milestones events are being derailed. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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