People prepare to sleep in areas marked by painted boxes on the ground of a parking lot at a makeshift camp for the homeless in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher) Open-air shelter in Las Vegas
People prepare to sleep in areas marked by painted boxes on the ground of a parking lot at a makeshift camp for the homeless in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

It’s a question cities and shelters are working to answer.

People in Las Vegas experiencing homelessness have been directed to sleep in rectangles painted on the pavement in a makeshift parking lot camp as a way to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The white-lined patches of pavement were created by officials in the city known for its hospitality after a homeless shelter closed when a man staying there tested positive for the coronavirus. 

The move is stirring outrage by some on social media. Former Obama administration housing chief Julian Castro suggested in a post on Twitter that the city’s homeless should be temporarily placed in empty hotel rooms.

Added actress Alyssa Milano in a tweet: “In Las Vegas, homeless people are sleeping on concrete floor of a parking lot —six feet apart—while all the hotel rooms are empty.”

On a single night in January 2018, more than 552,000 people were experiencing homelessness, according to federal data. They have a higher risk of being affected by contagious disease, and are least likely to have the means to protect themselves. As the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the nation, charities, homeless shelters, and local officials alike face a grim problem: How can a person quarantine themselves if they have no place to go?

Las Vegas city officials said they decided to temporarily place the homeless in a parking lot of a multi-use facility rather than inside buildings that include a stadium, a theater, exhibit space and meeting rooms, because officials planned to reserve them for potential hospital overflow space if needed. City spokesman Jace Radke said Tuesday that the open-air shelter was an “emergency situation” and the lot was chosen because the city already owned the property.

“The marked squares are to help meet social distancing requirements. We’ll continue to provide this temporary respite, while practicing necessary social distancing, for anyone who is suffering from homelessness,” Radke said in an email.

The makeshift shelters come as officials in other states look to protect homeless people. In California, which has the nation’s largest homeless population, Gov. Gavin Newsom has pledged thousands of hotel rooms to help homeless people during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the city of Anchorage, Alaska, is using the Sullivan Arena, which used to host an indoor football team, to create a mass homeless shelter. The 32,000-square-foot arena and the adjacent Ben Boeke Ice Arena will be used to shelter individuals (six feet apart) and provide a location to wash up and get a hot meal.

Keeping people who are living on the streets healthy comes with a unique set of challenges, many of which the Seattle area, where the first known case of coronavirus in the U.S. was documented, has had to deal with first hand. The city is home to the third largest homeless population in the country. 

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“Just some of the basic hygiene items and practices are not available to people on the streets,” said Terry Pallas in an interview with COURIER. Pallas serves as the chief program officer for Union Gospel Mission, a nonprofit that runs multiple homeless shelters in the Seattle area. “Being able to wash their hands, which everyone has been instructed to do over and over again, is more difficult, and the availability of hand sanitizer or anything like that is usually completely unavailable to that population.” 

It’s also significantly more difficult to practice social distancing when people have no place to isolate themselves. It’s common to see cramped and crowded shelters with beds placed closely together. As a result, some shelters have decreased the number of people they serve, including during mealtimes as well as how many individuals they’re willing to offer a bed to at night. 

Virus Outbreak Washington State
A man pushes belongings on a walker near a bus stop in downtown Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

“I know of many shelters that have stopped or greatly reduced the amount of intake they’re currently doing,” Pallas said. “So there’s a lot of struggle for individuals that are on the streets right now. The philosophy has always been to try to get as many homeless individuals off the street as possible [and increasing space between people] runs counter intuitive to what we normally do.”

Another way shelters are trying to limit the spread of the virus and monitor its progress is by requiring guests wash or sanitize their hands as they come into facilities. “We have staff posted at the door that are helping people sanitize their hands prior to entry and also educating the homeless population that we serve on signs and symptoms of COVID-19,” Pallas said. “Fever is one of the indicators, so at all of our locations, we are taking temperatures upon entry.”

To help protect the community, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan agreed to expand shelter capacity and temporarily suspend encampment removals. The city has also made efforts to provide more resources for people living on the streets, including hand-washing stations set up around the city and four hygiene trailers. The trailers provide people experiencing homelessness an opportunity for a hot shower, more private toilets, and washers and dryers to clean their clothes. 

The City also announced it would allow residents in Seattle’s Tiny House Villages—a program that provides a variety of different low-income housing options for homeless and formerly homeless individuals—to stay in place through the beginning of the summer. 

Additionally, Pallas said, city and county officials have kept his and other organizations in the loop on how they’re managing the outbreak. 

“I think the [King County] Department of Health has been pretty quick trying to get out information to educate most staff and the guest population also,” Pallas said. “They took inventory within the first week that this really kind of started becoming such a large issue in the Seattle area to round out how they could support us with either supplies or identifying vulnerabilities within our shelter system. So I’ve felt pretty well supported. I know those that are in those government roles have recognized pretty early on what a larger issue this is. And I see people just trying to do their very best to get in front of this thing, however possible.”

Even though Pallas feels communication lines have been open, he still sees room for improvement. 

“Of course, we all would like more supplies,” he said. “I’m not sure how much of that burden lies on government officials and I don’t think anybody is sitting on a stockpile or resources, at least on the government side. I see the opposite; I see people trying to push resources towards those that are most vulnerable, and so I’m trusting that and trusting the system right now.” 

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Richard McAdams, who works with the Seattle Union Gospel Mission, said that during this pandemic the homeless population he serves has simply been doing the best they can to get by and stay healthy. Many people struggling with homelessness typically use hand sanitizer to start fires for warmth, but that has changed in recent weeks, he said.

“We’re seeing less of that using hand sanitizer to keep warm and more people using it to keep their hands clean,” McAdams said. “Our folks out on the streets … they’re warriors, they’re survivors.” 

Despite advocates’ best efforts, there are now a growing number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the homeless community. Reports indicate that cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have all had people experiencing homelessness succumb to the virus. In Seattle, five of  Union Gospel Mission’s shelters have been placed in quarantine because a resident in one tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

McAdams said that the people he serves have few other options than trying to maintain a positive attitude. “From my perspective and, you know, just talking with some of the individuals and stuff, they’re just rolling with the punches and seeing what happens day to day and just taking things as they are.”

He added: “A lot of times, it’s just trust God, you know.”

Additional reporting by the Associated Press.