Homelessness in the Age of COVID-19

by Steve Werlin

The following appeared as an op-ed in the New Haven Independent on October 16, 2020, where it was accompanied by documentary filmmaker Steve Ham’s “Homeless in the Time of COVID.”  The original post, along with reader comments, can be viewed hereThe author, Steve Werlin, is the Executive Director of Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen.  


It’s mid-October.  Winter will be here soon, and for those on the street, this will be the darkest winter on record.

We have upwards of five or six hundred people experiencing homelessness at any given time in and around New Haven, some in shelters, some on the streets.  The causes of homelessness are fairly well-understood: a confluence of factors, including economic opportunity and local jobless rates, personal histories of trauma, mental health issues, and frequently co-occurring substance use disorder, and a broader culture that struggles with how to feel about, provide for, and engage with those who suffer in our community.

But at this juncture, that’s all irrelevant.

What’s relevant now is that the winter will be cold, COVID rates will increase, public life will recede, and those who are on the streets experiencing unsheltered homelessness will have nowhere to go.

What Usually Happens in the Winter

Every winter is a struggle.  Living on the streets poses a number of health risks and can be dangerous any time of year, but in New England the winter temperatures can turn any night into a near-death experience, or worse.  Most years, the City of New Haven responds in three important ways.  First, they provide some funding for a seasonal men’s “overflow” shelter from November to March.  Typically, this 75-bed contract is awarded to Columbus House, New Haven’s largest shelter provider.

Second, the City provides some funding for overnight “warming centers,” spaces where people who have nowhere else to go can get in out of the cold, usually from around 7:00 pm until 7:00 am.  Warming centers are not shelters: the lights remain on and, by design, there are no beds or cots.  The contracts typically go to local churches who can provide both adequate space and a sufficient number of able-and-willing volunteers to supervise.  In some years, homelessness service providers have sent outreach staff to the warming centers, but this is not necessarily part of the contract and so not guaranteed.  The warming centers typically have space for about 50 or more adults at a time.

And third, the City can initiate emergency “cold weather protocols” when the temperature drops to extreme levels, allowing them to open up City buildings for short-term refuge, and deploying emergency responders to comb the streets looking for those who are unsheltered.

Each of these responses is admirable, critical, and a significant improvement beyond past approaches.  But while the City continues to direct limited resources toward these essential services, these strategies are still inadequate in terms of funding and long-term, sustainable solutions to homelessness.

Moreover, they’re only solutions for the nighttime.  During the day, people on the streets normally seek refuge from the cold in soup kitchens—like Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen (DESK), Community Soup Kitchen (CSK), Sunrise Cafe, and Yale Community Kitchen—as well as libraries, the train station, homelessness service provider offices, the hospital, and those coffee shops and public businesses who won’t chase them out.  A typical day for many of those we serve at DESK involves a constant migration, all in the interest of keeping warm and staying safe.

The Prospects for This Winter

I’ll be blunt: the prospects for this winter aren’t good.

As we head into winter, we’re already starting to see the number of cases of COVID-19 in Connecticut go up, perhaps the tip of the iceberg we’re calling the “second wave.”  The fall has been mild so far, but as temperatures cool and activities move indoors, Coronavirus cases will very likely continue to increase.  Our state is sliding into Phase 3 of the Connecticut Reopening Plan, and our Board of Ed is now intending to transition our kids back into the schools at least part-time—but the unstated reality is that winter in New Haven will probably resemble the ghost-town we saw in the spring, with businesses and public services mostly shuttered.

This past spring, homelessness service providers across the state were asked to conduct “shelter decompression” and move adults from congregate shelters to hotels.  This was a largely successful strategy that surely saved lives.  With the summer to prepare, some shelters have begun reopening, and will operate at around 50 percent capacity throughout the winter; others have remained and will remain closed.  Meanwhile, the Greater New Haven Coordinated Access Network (CAN)—a collaboration of agencies supported and staffed by the United Way—has requested funding from the state for 150 hotel beds for people experiencing homelessness.

But this won’t be enough to cover everyone.  Last spring, Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen worked with partners at Connecticut Mental Health Center, Community Soup Kitchen, Cornell Scott Hill Health Center, Amistad Catholic Worker House, and the Sex Workers and Allies Network to identify almost 150 people living on the street; doubtless there were more who went uncounted.

Where will all those people go this winter?

The City of New Haven has again issued a request for proposals to fund 50 spots in two warming centers (or possibly one overnight warming center and one daytime drop-in center) between November and April, with proposals due this Tuesday.  We’re going to need at least that many spots, night and day.

But unlike in past years, when well-meaning and good-hearted churches stepped up to serve as overnight warming centers, COVID poses a major problem: the older buildings that house most of New Haven’s churches generally do not have adequate facilities.  In addition to having enough space to enable social distancing, the buildings must have appropriate HVAC systems to exchange the air with fresh outside air, as well as appropriate mechanisms to filter or otherwise mitigate the transmission of the virus.  Would-be applicants also need volunteers from among their congregants to provide onsite supervision and to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing.  Each year, the City struggles to find an organization and facility to accept the (underfunded) contract; this year, it may be impossible.

To frame the problem more succinctly:

  1. This winter, New Haven will have more than100 people living on the street.
  2. Most places typically used as indoor places of respite from the cold during the day (soup kitchens, libraries, public services, etc.) will likely be inaccessible this winter.
  3. No adequate facility has yet been identified to serve as an overnight warming center or daytime drop-in center.
  4. No organization has yet stepped up to provide the staffing for such a facility.

As I said, the prospects for this winter are not good.

So What Do We Need?

The ideal solution for this winter (or any time for that matter) is to provide housing for people experiencing homelessness.  Indeed, “rapid rehousing” funding—that is, short-term subsidies for rent and other expenses to move people quickly into homes—was identified as a priority by the City for CARES Act funding this summer.  And despite the long-term implications of providing short-term subsidies, rapid rehousing is considered nationally a best-practice strategy toward ending homelessness.  This winter, as people in shelters and hotel rooms get housed, the presumption is that spaces will open up for those who are on the street.

But housing people takes time, and winter is approaching quickly.  And we’re still likely to fall short of the number of shelter and hotel beds.  So what do we need now?

  1. We need spaces.  Appropriate locations for both an overnight warming center and a daytime drop-in center must be identified quickly.  These locations need to be large enough to accommodate at least 50 people at a time (ideally more) who are socially distanced.  In fact, an appropriate location exists at Hill Regional Career High School, whose space has been designated for emergency operations by the state, and which was used as a medical respite shelter for those experiencing homelessness and had a positive COVID-19 test this past spring.  If New Haven Public Schools will truly be returning to in-person learning in November, this building may be off-the-table; so if the City has access to any comparable buildings, now would be the time to think creatively about how those can be used.  We need realistic options for available buildings managed by willing partners or owned by the City.
  2. We need staff.  Any overnight warming center or daytime drop-in center needs staff for ensuring everyone’s safety.  At DESK, we work with over 2,500 volunteers annually, and they’re amazing.  They’re dedicated, they’re compassionate, and they’re always there when we need them most (including throughout this pandemic!).  But they don’t have the training, background, or the protections that come with paid employment that’s needed right now.  We need a homelessness service provider with the capacity to hire, train, and redeploy staff in a matter of weeks.
  3. We need funding.  The City’s RFP is offering $17 per spot per night or day per week.  Between November 23 and April 15 (21 weeks), that’s $62,475 for 25 people.  Even if paid minimum wage, the staffing alone would cost more than that.  And let’s say we could get away with a modest 2,000 square feet of space for 25 people socially distanced; at $15 per square-foot of rental space, we’d need $15,000 just to step foot in the door (assuming we can get a six-month lease)—and we haven’t yet turned on the lights or the heat!  The reality is that the City and state look to nonprofits to fill in the gaps through private fundraising.  And while that may work in normal times, we’re only at the beginning of a recession that will have years of fallout for those of us who rely on private fundraising.  Six months into an exhausting, expensive, and emotionally taxing public health crisis, we’re not in a position to “do more with less,” as we’ve been told in the past.
  4. We need to think beyond COVID.  The charge is now and the need is immediate.  But homelessness will outlive the pandemic.  Yes, we need appropriate facilities and adequate staffing to save lives this winter—but while COVID-19 poses a mortal threat right now, homelessness is a mortal threat always.  The pandemic has led many of us working on the frontlines to throw out the playbook and come up with new and better ways of doing things.  Among food assistance groups, we’re witnessing a realignment of organizations with a level of coordination and communication previously unseen in New Haven.  For homelessness outreach, this is an opportunity to think about new ways we can serve those who are unsheltered and help them attain greater health, stability, and wellbeing.  A properly executed and well-funded overnight warming center and daytime drop-in center in response to COVID could provide the framework for changing and improving our strategies in the years to come.

Here’s What You Can Do

First, if you’ve gotten this far, then I ask you to take five more minutes and watch the video below by local documentary filmmaker, Steve Hamm.  These are the voices of those we serve at DESK, and although I always try to let their views guide our work, their words in this short film are more powerful than any plea I can make.  Listen to what they have to say with compassion and empathy.  These are your neighbors and they need your support.

Homeless in the Time of COVID on Vimeo

Second, forward this to your alder and your delegates to the General Assembly.  Tell them that you care about saving the lives of those most in need this winter, as well as in the months and years beyond the pandemic.  Tell them that the City must find a building, staffing, and the funding before the winter arrives.  Tell them you think there’s value in providing both short-term life-saving solutions and proven long-term strategies to make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring.  But most of all, tell them that all this is worthy of full public funding.

And third, leave an encouraging comment below.  Or better yet, suggest a warming center location we haven’t considered.  All ideas are on the table, but the best options will be centrally-located, HVAC-ready, wheelchair accessible, and (most importantly) managed by a willing-and-able partner.

Tonight we’ll continue to serve our “grab-and-go” style dinner at DESK.  Since transitioning to the front lawn of Center Church’s Parish House in mid-March, our staff and volunteers haven’t missed a dinner.  And no matter the weather conditions, people show up—many because they simply have nowhere else to go.  This is what it means to experience homelessness, unsheltered.  What will it mean this winter?

COVID-19 Response

by Evan Serio

DESK’s Program Manager, Evan Serio, joined the organization almost a year-and-a-half ago, and since that time he has been the driving force at DESK behind some of our most significant health initiatives.  As a staunch advocate of harm reduction and healthcare for the homeless, he is well-versed in the latest strategies for helping to ensure the overall health of those we serve at DESK as best we can.  In addition to the important work Evan does with our Guests, he also oversees Volunteer Coordination.  The following is taken from an email sent out earlier this week to DESK’s 2,500+ volunteer corps. –ed.  

By now, everyone is aware of the threat around the COVID-19 virus.

Most of what is being circulated sounds pretty scary and we at DESK want to assure you that we’re taking this very seriously. We are in communication with City and public health officials, and are taking the necessary precautions to keep the whole of DESK’s community safe: volunteers, Guests, and staff.

We encourage all volunteers and staff to protect their health and the health of people we serve together with some basic steps both here at DESK and everywhere you go:

Know your symptoms

Coronavirus, Flu, and strains of cold can all show symptoms of fever, cough, shortness of breath, or in some cases, difficulty breathing. Again, these are signs to watch for and to treat with rest, or with a visit to a clinic or healthcare provider if they do not improve or if they get worse.

Wash your hands thoroughly

As DESK volunteers, you already know the importance of good hygiene practices when it comes to food service. But did you know that COVID-19 is an ‘enveloped’ virus? This means that it has a lipid membrane around it. Thorough hand washing with soap can dissolve this membrane and kill the virus. Thorough means vigorous washing with ample soap for at least 20 seconds (sing yourself “Happy Birthday” twice over!).  Be sure to get between you fingers, under rings, and over wrists, and don’t forget the nail-beds.

Manage your exposure risk

Clean high-traffic surfaces frequently (such as railings, door and sink handles, counters, public computers, etc.) with disinfectants. Cough and sneeze into your elbow or a tissue. Avoid touching your mouth, eyes, or nose with unwashed hands. The CDC also recommends against healthy people wearing face masks: it only keeps you breathing stagnant air and can raise alarm in others.

If you’re not feeling well, please stay home, and rest up!

People who are ill may share their germs with others. And people who are ill are already weakened, so any other spreading viruses may hit them harder than healthy individuals. Add to this that many of our volunteers and Guests are immuno-compromised before coming in contact with any other illness, and we should all do our part to keep everyone healthy and safe.

If you need to call out from a volunteer shift, please just email me ahead of time, and if you are able to remove yourself from the SignUp calendar, please do so!

There is a wealth of information about COVID-19 on the internet right now; make sure that you are following credible sources. Here are some that DESK is following:

Is DESK closing or altering our schedule?

At the time of writing this, DESK does not intend to close.  That said, we have established protocols to implement “reduced services,” which will take the form of “grab-and-go” meals, rather than our typical sit-down.  At yesterday’s Food Pantry, we changed our model slightly to allow only a ten clients in at a time, so as to avoid having too many people in an enclose space at once.  We will do our best to keep volunteers and Guests alerted to major changes. 

We — and our Guests — can’t do this without YOU!

We always rely heavily on our passionate corps of volunteers, but all the more so during a public health crisis.   Many volunteers will have to cancel at the last minute because they are unsure of their own health status, so we are counting on you all go the extra mile.  If you would like to join our Emergency Volunteer Group to be on-call in the event of volunteer cancellations, please send me an email with your name, email address, and phone number for texting.

If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out to me at (203) 624-6426, ext. 8961 or our Executive Director, Steve Werlin, at (203) 624-6426, ext. 8557.

Stay healthy, New Haven, and we hope to see you soon!