In the time of global social distancing, thousands of people experiencing homelessness around the country have remained in crowded shelters.
To mitigate that problem locally, the GRACE Marketplace shelter has raised over $10,000 in an effort to help residents find housing.
“It’s a tough situation because we’ve got congregate shelters,” GRACE executive director Jon DeCarmine said.
Almost 200 people are currently living at GRACE Marketplace, a homeless resource center that opened in 2014 and has helped over 13,000 people and served some 650,000 meals.
On March 20, the shelter announced a voluntary quarantine despite not having any confirmed cases of coronavirus. The shelter also stopped accepting new residents on the campus and the two campgrounds, including Dignity Village.
The shelter changed the spacing of beds and converted all meals to take-out in order to abide by the social distancing regulations recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, DeCarmine said.
The University of Florida’s mobile medical clinic has provided testing at the shelter every Monday and Friday for staff members and residents. Even though there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus at the shelter, some staff members have been working from home due to their vulnerability to the illness.
“We are keeping an eye on this constantly, because in most major cities COVID-19 is showing up in the homeless population four to eight weeks after it shows up in the general house population,” DeCarmine said.
Assistant professor Lisa Platt and associate professor Jason von Meding from the University of Florida College of Design, Construction and Planning have been conducting research at GRACE Marketplace on how to prevent infections at homeless resource centers.
Based off her research on the spread of bacterial infections, Platt said, people experiencing homelessness are specifically vulnerable to bacterial infections because of crowded living conditions, exposure and lack of access to proper corrective health care. These factors are also why people in homeless resource centers are vulnerable to coronavirus.
John Lednicky is a research professor at the Emerging Pathogens Institute at UF. He said the inability to implement social distancing may cause more people to be infected by the virus.
“The closer you are to the emitting source, the higher your chance of mucus membranes in your nose or mouth or your eyes coming into contact with the virus particles,” Lednicky said. “Homeless people who are unhealthy will certainly be more vulnerable.”
In Alachua County, 215 people tested positive for coronavirus as of Monday, but there have so far been no deaths because of the virus. Statewide, the death toll neared 800 this weekend.
Von Meding, a disaster studies expert, said disasters like this pandemic have long term effects that are often unaccounted for by people that view disasters as short term environmental events.
“Disasters give us a raw glimpse of flaws and injustices in our society,” he said. “A lot of the systems that we rely on are really not working or not protecting people’s lives and their wellbeing.”
The lack of funding for labs like the Emerging Pathogens Institute at UF has led to an inadequate response to the virus throughout the country, said Lednicky, a researcher who is on the team at UF that developed a test for the virus.
“We need to get politics out of the picture,” he said, “and we need to fund the labs.”
In March, GRACE Marketplace management decided to accelerate its goal of placing residents in independent housing by starting a campaign with the hashtag #stillhousingGNV on Facebook. The homeless shelter has partnered with multiple companies, which have pledged to match individual donations up to $15,000.
According to DeCarmine, GRACE Marketplace is currently 80% occupied and the goal is to reduce the occupancy rate to 50% in order to reduce the likelihood of infection in the shelter.
“We understand and recognize that there’s no safer place for somebody to be right now than in their own home,” he said. “We were able to house 39 people last month and as we continue to do this, we are looking to house another 40 people this month.”
Most residents at GRACE Marketplace are eligible for the $1,200 stimulus checks provided by the federal government because they are receiving Social Security or disability assistance.
However, some residents have not made enough money to file taxes in the past years, so they are not eligible for the stimulus checks issued by the federal government. Those residents are working with case managers and advocates from the shelter to become eligible.
“For those who have income, $1,200 is a good first step towards paying first month’s rent and last month’s rent and security deposit,” DeCarmine said. “For people who don’t have any other income, we want to be very careful that we’re not putting them into an apartment that they’re just going to lose 30 days later.”