This piece originally appeared at HuffPost, where you can read it in its entirety.
Thousands of elderly and immunocompromised people are experiencing homelessness in Washington state, an epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, and the state isn’t giving them the option to self-isolate.
This puts them at serious risk for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. It’s also a dangerous double standard, advocates for homeless people say. At a time when officials are urging people to self-isolate to lower the likelihood of contracting the virus or spreading it, vulnerable people who are homeless are sharing sleeping quarters and restrooms.
“The city should be giving the kind of care to the homeless population that anyone would give their parents who are in their 80s,” said Rex Hohlbein, the founder of Facing Homelessness, a nonprofit that provides direct assistance to homeless Seattle residents. “Every person living outside is in the vulnerable category.”
Finding Spaces For Shelter
The state has taken some steps to protect its homeless population. The city of Seattle and King County are moving the shelter population into new, larger spaces so that they can sleep 6 feet apart. Residents who start showing symptoms are supposed to be moved into isolation units reserved for that purpose. But until then, they aren’t able to self-isolate, even if they’re vulnerable to the virus.
People experiencing homelessness who are older than 50 tend to have more underlying health problems than the general population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, and are at higher risk for both chronic and contagious diseases.
But that’s not nearly enough, advocates say. The latest one-night count of King County’s homeless population identified more than 5,200 people in shelters.
The city and county need to think long-term, said Tiffani McCoy, the lead organizer for the Seattle homeless advocacy group Real Change and a contributor to its newspaper.
“It would be better to get folks inside, where they could self-isolate, have access to hygiene services and follow public health guidelines in a way that maintains their dignity,” McCoy said.
Other people experiencing homelessness are sleeping outside, where they face other challenges as many public facilities have shut down, leaving them with no access to bathrooms or indoor spaces.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced this week that the city would deploy four hygiene trailers, along with handwashing stations and portable toilets, across the city. But with most other public restrooms shut down and just six 24-hour restrooms available citywide, it will take a lot more than a few portable toilets to meet the need.