People who are homeless people have very few places to go and they are often forgotten ––hidden in the fabric of our society.
Some sleep on sidewalks and bus stops. They roam during the day and through the night, seeking shelter and food — just struggling to survive.
Their situation presents challenges. And those everyday challenges have amplified with the entry of the coronavirus pandemic.
Health care? Well, that’s another part of their existence with many complications, to say the least.
So what happens if they test positive for the coronavirus?
That question precedes a more pressing query: Is the Virginia Department of Health and the Peninsula Health District tracking positive cases of the coronavirus in the local homeless population?
“Each locality is doing something to address the homeless population upon finding that a COVID case is positive,” VDH spokesman Larry Hill wrote in an email. “For example a health district may be working with a vulnerable population. They will go to areas where they live or may be staying and provide information about testing and testing sites coming up in their communities.”
Hill said health districts also work with the faith-based community, but he did not elaborate on the PHD’s efforts regarding the homeless population, whether or not the health district is in contact with the homeless community.
“There is no homeless data for COVID and to my awareness, there is no homeless database or registry done at VDH,” he wrote. “There is other data that would represent the individual.”
It’s unclear why the health departments are not tracking the number of positive coronavirus cases in the homeless population.
PHD spokeswoman Irene Ferrainolo referred inquiries about the matter to local homeless resources: Williamsburg House of Mercy and Hampton Roads Ecumenical Lodgings and Provisions, Inc.
“I will be working in the call center so may not be able to talk very long,” she wrote on July 30, but added WYDaily could call the center and ask to speak with her. “However, I know very little about the direct effect of Covid on the homeless.”
WYDaily attempted to contact Ferrainolo multiple times but she was not immediately available for comment.
On Aug. 6, Ferrainolo emailed WYDaily, saying she was out of the office for three days and had already referred a reporter to other resources.
“VDH and LDH’s [local health district’s] have no mechanism by which positive cases within the homeless population are counted,” she wrote. “Again, the people at the agencies who serve the homeless may be able to supply anecdotal information.”
Williamsburg House of Mercy Executive Director Shannon Woloszynowski said they have not had any positive coronavirus cases among the local homeless population yet.
“If we were to have one, which we haven’t, we would track it,” she said.
Woloszynowski said most of the homeless population are not in “congregate settings” and are “really rather reclusive.” They have managed to rehouse those who are experiencing homelessness in permanent housing or hotels for the time being.
While there are no positive cases now, “it remains to be seen” as college students are coming back to Williamsburg, some possibly from high risk areas, she pointed out.
The nonprofit organization has taken some precautions for the homeless population, setting up hand washing stations, packing sanitizing wipes with to-go lunches and all of the people who are homeless wear masks.
“They are all being really good, much better than some other people are,” she added.
If someone did want to get tested, they could take public transit — WATA — to Old Towne Medical Center for free, Woloszynowski said.
She said they have bus tickets available if WATA starts charging for trips.
Previously, Woloszynowski said Sentara had two testing sites here and then as cases went up, Old Towne Medical Center “picked up the ball on that,” offering free testing at their clinic.
Pre-COVID-19, the medical center would have “pop-up clinics” at Williamsburg House of Mercy, something they hope to restart after the coronavirus.
“At first we have been reluctant to bring them back together in any congregate setting because its just not safe, it’s not safe for them,” Woloszynowski said. “We’ve had more success keeping them safe…by helping them get permanently housed and using hotels as shelters.”
HELP Executive Director Matthew Stearn said the nonprofit is tracking the positive number of coronavirus cases but not in a specific database.
“We know anecdotally,” he said. “We have less than five cases in the homeless population that we work with.”
While he is not sure if the low numbers are because of the lack of testing or people getting sick and the nonprofit does not know about it, those who test positive are put in hotels by the city of Hampton for a least two weeks.
As for transportation services, Stearn said HELP does not have specific transportation available but does have bus passes normally.
But during the coronavirus, they might have to work with Uber or Lyft instead.
“I think putting them on public transportation wouldn’t be the best option,” he added. We would try to limit exposure to the community.”
As of Thursday, there are 103,622 cases, 8,592 hospitalizations and 2,363 deaths statewide, according to VDH’s COVID-19 Daily Dashboard.
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