Last week, a person experiencing homelessness was diagnosed with COVID-19 for the first time in Salem. And social workers and advocates in Oregon’s capital city say it probably won’t be the last such diagnosis.
They’ve been preparing for this since mid-February, Jimmy Jones, executive director of Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, told OPB’s Think Out Loud. He cautioned that there’s still significant work to be done to improve conditions for homeless people affected by the coronavirus.
“This is a virus that hits the homeless service system in all of its weak points,” Jones said.
People experiencing homelessness – especially those who do not live in shelters – are likely to have underlying health conditions that make them especially vulnerable if they become infected with COVID-19, he said.
“But they are also in a position where they could not follow the key pieces of advice that they were being given by public health authorities, in the sense that they have very little opportunity to practice good hygiene, that they could not really follow social distancing requirements,” Jones said. “Once they became sick, they have very little opportunity to self-quarantine or to isolate.”
As the virus began to spread and take hold in the Pacific Northwest, Willamette Valley Community Action Agency began to identify people older than 50 with underlying health conditions and move them into motels.
“Today we’ve got around 45 individuals who haven’t tested positive but fit into those categories,” Jones said. “We’ve been trying to get them into a situation where they are not going to encounter a large number of people outside, which might be another vector for infection.”
Outreach to homeless youth in Salem, meanwhile, has been hampered by social distancing efforts. The only overnight shelter for unhoused youth in the area is trying to create more space between beds. That means that young people are being turned away because there are not enough beds for everyone, Jones said.
An all-age day center that once offered people without housing a place to gather or rest during daylight hours has also dramatically reduced its offerings, he said. Mail service and toilets are still available, but meal services have been moved outside.
Even before the coronavirus began to escalate, Jones and other advocates were concerned about Salem’s policies against tent camping in city parks. That pushed people into less hygienic camping arrangements, and health outreach workers reported an increase in infections and open wounds, he said.
City leaders have responded by allowing tent camping at several parks, which gives unhoused people more space to stretch out – though Jones said some campsites are still too close together. “So we’re still working with the city and other entities to try to open up more camping space, so we can space folks out a little better.”