COVID-19 adds to plight of the homeless

These are especially difficult days — and nights — for the homeless of Western New York.

They share the same fears about COVID-19 as do those comfortably cloistered in their houses and apartments. But they also have fewer options as to where to bed for the night, as some shelters have closed and others have reduced their capacity to comply with state edicts intended to limit crowds and contact between people. The homeless also often lack ready access to other basics, such as medical care.

“Being homeless right now, anywhere, is a pretty tough thing,” Jean Bennett, director of Housing and Homeless Services for the Restoration Society, told Investigative Post.

Those working with the homeless say the problem has been manageable — barely — but stands to get worse if replacement accommodations aren’t found by Friday for the Belle Center on the city’s Lower West Side, which has provided temporary shelter for up to 50 people since Sunday night.

Governments at every level, from federal to municipal, have handed down rules — often changing, sometimes conflicting — to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. To comply, local agencies that provide beds, meals, and other essential services to the homeless and other at-risk populations have been compelled to reduce capacity and change the way they interact with clientele.

The Buffalo City Mission, on the edge of the city’s medical campus, reduced the number of beds available to the homeless by almost half, to 50. The Lt. Col. Matt Urban Center, on the city’s East Side, reduced the number of beds it offers from 50 to 35. Both continue to provide takeout meals and groceries and other services. Much of the face-to-face interaction between staff and clients has been curtailed.

According to a 2018 study by the Homeless Alliance of Western New York, nearly 6,000 people experience homelessness in Erie County in the course of a year. Children comprise about a quarter of that number. About 70 percent are single adults; two-thirds of them are men. More than half the county’s homeless are African-American.

Homelessness is primarily an urban problem because that’s where the region’s poverty is concentrated. That’s where the services for the homeless  — state and county programs, nonprofit agencies — are concentrated, too.

Thousands are homeless

St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy, also on the East Side, is part of the city’s Code Blue network. Code Blue — a collaborative effort between the City of Buffalo and nonprofit agencies that usually runs Nov. 15 through March 15 — provides shelter to anyone who seeks it whenever the temperature falls below freezing at night, as has happened at least seven times in the last two weeks. 

Since the COVID-19 crisis began, Code Blue has been open regardless of temperature. On the coldest winter nights, the three Code Blue shelters sleep as many as 150 people.

Unable to comply with state and federal emergency guidelines and continue to provide other essential services, however, St. Luke’s stopped offering beds. 

“That left a lot of people not having a place to go because all shelters had really cut their capacity,” said Bennett, who is a coordinator of the Code Blue program. 

As temperatures dipped into the low 20s late last week, that left only Harbor House — a small nighttime drop-in center in downtown Buffalo that Bennett oversees — and Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church on Niagara Street — as Code Blue facilities. In response, the city and county quickly set up beds and other services at the Belle Center, near downtown. As a result, this week the Code Blue program has been able to accommodate everyone seeking shelter.

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But it’s a temporary reprieve: The shelter at the Belle Center, set up in an hour on Sunday evening and filled to capacity that same night, is scheduled to shut down this Friday. City and county officials are looking for another site to take its place, according to both Bennett and Nadia Pizarro, program director for Best Self Behavioral Health.

Pizarro is also a Code Blue coordinator. She said the as-yet-unidentified new site should provide beds for 100-200 people and be open 24 hours. Round-the-clock hours are important, Pizarro said, because, with libraries and other public spaces on lockdown, vulnerable populations need safe, humane places to spend their days. 

“A new, bigger facility, with more space, in combination with the existing capacity at Holy Cross, will enable us to have our staff and our services all in one place,” she said. “We’ll work to bring in medical personnel and social workers and other services, too.”

Pizarro noted that state government, which instituted the distancing guidelines that compelled shelters to reduce their number of beds, has since exempted shelters from those very guidelines. But many agencies have been hesitant to return to their former capacity. They’re uncertain whether those guidelines might change again, and reluctant to expose their clients and staff to increased risk of infection.

Concerns on East Side

Marlies Wesolowski, executive director of the Matt Urban Center in the city’s Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood, is concerned not only for the well-being of her clients and her staff. She’s also worried about the survival of her entire operation.

The center, she explained, is paid by government agencies according to the services it provides. If the center’s ability to deliver services is limited — not by the community’s need of them but by the battle to contain COVID-19’s spread — the center stands to receive less reimbursement. That, in turn, may force her to reduce staff, further limiting the center’s ability to provide services, and thus a vicious spiral begins.

“Even if we’re able to demonstrate that we’re providing the services,” she said, “is there going to be somebody at the city, the county, the state available to process the vouchers in order to get reimbursed, so I can pay people?”

By the time financial relief comes, if it comes, Wesolowski fears the center could be irretrievably damaged. The center raises significant revenues to support operations from a Dyngus Day fundraiser. That’s been cancelled, too. 

Meanwhile, Matt Urban’s clients, she said, are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Many have existing health problems, are elderly, live in unstable housing — if they have housing at all. They can also lack access to medical care.

Pizarro agreed. She said a disease like COVID-19 could spread “like wildfire” among the populations served by agencies like Matt Urban and Best Self, and collaborative efforts like Code Blue. So far, she said, there’s no evidence that’s happening, but the crisis continues to intensify. Public health advisers have told Gov. Andrew Cuomo the peak is two to four weeks away.

“I feel like I’m in this science fiction movie, and everything that could go wrong is going wrong,” Wesolowski said. “I hope everybody gets through this. I don’t want to lose anyone. I just want someone to give me the wisdom to make the right decisions.”

Schools providing services

Buffalo public schools, whose enrollment includes 568 homeless students, is also stepping up.

The schools are working with students in need of meals and other assistance, according to spokeswoman Elena Cala. Schools have been closed since March 16 and are tentatively scheduled to reopen on April 20.

Cala said the city and schools are working to provide hotspots to areas in need so students can access the internet for learning purposes. In addition, all high school students received a laptop for their assignments, while younger students received work packets.

The district, which has almost 33,000 students, is also serving meals to those who qualify. Around 68 percent of students are eligible, according to the most recent state data.

School staff members are serving meals on three days a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. To date, the district reports it has served more than 44,500 meals since schools closed earlier this month.

Cala said Superintendent Kriner Cash expects the need to grow as the social distancing period increases.

Reporter Ali Ingersoll contributed to this report.