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Staying home is key to slowing the spread of the coronavirus. What does that mean for the homeless?

man sits on bench with sign that says anything helps
Homeless shelters around the state are having to balance meeting people's basic needs while trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at their facilities.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has ordered people in Michigan to “stay at home” in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The order goes into effect on Tuesday,  March 24.

While staying home is an important way to reduce the spread of the virus, not everybody has that option. Homeless shelters around the state are having to balance meeting people’s most basic needs like food and housing, while also doing their best to maintain social distance in crowded facilities.

Sarah Paspal-Jasinski is the development director for the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County. She said that shelters in the state are definitely feeling the strain caused by the uncertainty of the pandemic. And as the coronavirus continues to spread, they will face an unprecedented challenge.

“We do not have any positive cases of COVID-19, but homeless shelters are incubators for illness right now. It’s just a matter of time until we test someone positive, and then the next person’s positive, and the next person,” she said. 

The CDC has issued guidelines  for homeless shelters on how to practice something resembling social distancing in crowded spaces like shelters. The federal agency warns that people who are homeless are at a higher risk of coronavirus complications due to underlying health conditions and the health effects of homelessness itself. Paspal-Jasinski told us that many of the people her organization serves are also seniors, another high-risk demographic.

Right now, the most pressing needs for shelters are “physical human resources, financial resources, and physical spaces.” Paspal-Jasinski said that shelters are in dire need of volunteers, and are stretched financially as they pay staff to work overtime filling in gaps left by volunteers staying home.

Shelters around the county are also looking for places to house healthy clients, so that more at-risk people can stay at the shelter itself. Paspal-Jasinski said that's proven difficult. Many shelters are short-staffed at their own buildings, and people from community organizations are worried about protecting their own health.

In order to meet these challenges, she said, there needs to be a comprehensive plan about how communities will take care of those facing homelessness.

“People are becoming more and more ill. What are we going to when people are ill out there? Let people die? No. This is a community burden. The Shelter Association of Washtenaw County is willing to manage the ship, but we need help.”

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 9 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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