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Detroit mobilizes to protect the homeless from coronavirus

Extremely vulnerable in normal times, the homeless are even more at risk now. But the city, various agencies, and volunteers have stepped up to help.

Chef Maxcel Hardy and culinary Student John Laura papare pans of food going for Detroit Shelters.
Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen for Good

For the 11 years that she’s served Detroit’s homeless population, Tasha Gray has learned that accomplishing collective goals in her line of work often takes too long. But the emergence of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has changed that—she’s now seeing a string of lightning-fast, collaborative efforts to help protect the city’s homeless during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve seen some things get off the ground in a matter of days or hours that probably would have taken months or years in previous times,” says Gray, executive director of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit, the city’s lead agency in the Continuum of Care. “I’m just so proud of how we’ve been able to pool together.”

Extremely vulnerable in normal times, the homeless are even more at risk now. Government and health officials are urging everyone to remain in their home, but homeless individuals don’t have that option. They don’t have easy access to sinks or showers when maintaining good hygiene is essential to preventing contraction of COVID-19. And many already have compounding health issues.

But the city has stepped up to help its most vulnerable population. Days after the novel coronavirus began ravaging the city last month, Detroit swiftly launched a robust—and perhaps unprecedented—effort to assist its most vulnerable population living in the city’s shelters, on the streets, and in other unstable environments.

Efforts included opening two shelters developed through a partnership between the Detroit Health Department and Wayne State University and providing living space for people with COVID-19 who were discharged from hospitals, are homeless, or experiencing housing instability. The Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries has also added two overflow sites with more than 300 beds to handle the additional need.

Nurses from the Detroit Health Department are making rounds to shelters to check residents’ and workers’ temperatures and symptoms three times a week. Outreach teams from the department and other organizations are scouring the city’s streets searching for people who may need masks, medical services, food, and housing.

Plans also are in the works for agencies to dispatch additional mobile units to serve those in need of medical attention and to set up portable toilets and hand-washing stations.

“With everything being closed, they used to be able to use public restrooms. But they no longer have those options,” Gray says. “So, we’re figuring out how to better assist the unsheltered homeless.”

Besides city departments, nonprofits and other agencies have stepped in to help the city’s homeless, including a new cooperative effort of restaurants feeding about 400 sheltered residents each day.

But that also means additional protections are needed to protect residents and staff.

At Covenant House, a shelter that houses up to 65 young adults ages 18 to 24 in two buildings, life has been trying since the virus began spreading through Detroit and Michigan, which has one of the highest COVID-19 cases.

Since mid-March, at least 13 of 18 staff members have gone out sick with the virus. It’s also been challenging to get residents to remember to social distance, and wear masks and gloves, says executive director Gerald J. Piro. A handful of residents have also had to be sent out for testing when they had COVID-19 symptoms—it’s a daily struggle to keep the rest of them healthy.

“They want to congregate and be with their friends, but we tell them, ‘You can’t do that,’” Piro said. “But over time, they’ve come to understand the rules and the seriousness of this is sinking in.”

For Celia Thomas, chief operating officer at Alternative For Girls, a shelter housing 18 girls and their nine children, that meant dealing with terrified residents who bolted to go stay with relatives and trying to calm other young women who suffered panic attacks and had to be sent to hospitals for medical treatment.

Girls who remained in the shelter adjusted to shuffled living arrangements, social distancing policies, spending more time remaining isolated from other residents, and finding ways to occupy and entertain their children. With everyone home all day, it increased the need for cleaning supplies and food, but so far no one in the facility has tested positive for COVID-19.

In normal times, Thomas says, knowing emergency responses like what to do in the event of a snowstorm was standard. Now, every day presents a new challenge.

“With COVID, we have no clue from day-to-day what we are going to be looking at,” Thomas says. “It’s been challenging, but we are staying open.”

Staying open meant paring down staff to 30 percent. Budgets for cleaning and food are nearly exhausted for the fiscal year. COVID-19 response grants and donations are being used to fill in the gaps.

That’s why Thomas is thrilled to receive critical help feeding the young women and their children through the initiative Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen for Good.

Detroit chefs Maxcel Hardy of Coop Caribbean Fusion, Phil Jones of Mas Haru, and Genevieve Vang of Bangkok 96 Street Food pooled together surplus food from their restaurants when they were shut down for full dine-in service on March 26.

Ron Bartell, the owner of Kuzzo’s Chicken and Waffles and Stephanie Byrd of The Block and Flood’s Bar and Grille, also are part of the effort to feed Detroit’s homeless and those affected by COVID-19.

They found commercial kitchen space courtesy of the Horatio Williams Foundation, where staff from four shelters pick up trays of food. Their publicist, David Rudolph, helps manage the operation.

“It’s been amazing,” Thomas says. “They are cooking for us and it’s been hugely helpful. It’s one less thing for the staff to be concerned about and we’ve been blessed to be part of it.”