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"Their lives are not disposable": New York City's homeless population among the most at risk during the pandemic, advocates warn

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As the coronavirus rages through New York City, advocates are warning that the city's homeless population faces an even higher risk of contracting the disease than the rest of the city's residents. Local groups warn that the homeless don't have the option to isolate at home, and that they lack access to the supplies and medical care they need to stay safe. 

So far, at least 44 people experiencing homelessness from 30 shelter locations have tested positive for the virus, according to New York City's Department of Homeless Services. One of those individuals died in a hospital on Tuesday, and 10 others are hospitalized; nine people have left their shelters. Those cases are among more than 23,000 confirmed citywide.

Advocates for the homeless say that without further help from the city, many more will fall ill. Health officials have consistently recommended that New Yorkers isolate themselves at home and practice social distancing. But Áine Duggan, president and CEO of The Partnership for the Homeless, said "the imperative to stay home comes with a prerequisite of having a home." 

"For all of those families and individuals, this is a time of heightened risk and a time of heightened fear," Duggan told CBS News. "It's not possible for people to socially isolate or socially distance, as it's being said, and so people are mingling, and there is a greater risk of the virus starting in those settings." 

Approximately 57,000 homeless people reside in New York City shelters, and about 3,000 more live on the streets, according to the most recent data from the city's Department of Homeless Services. Joseph Loonam, housing campaign coordinator of the grassroots organization VOCAL-NY, told CBS News that to the organization's knowledge, neither the city nor the state have provided shelters with additional face masks, medical supplies, or other resources to cope with the pandemic. 

"The mayor and the governor have allowed the homeless population and the shelter population to grow in the magnitude of the tens of thousands over the last decade, and every single one of those people is now uniquely at risk of harm due to this virus," Loonam said. "There has not been an increase in cleaning. We have not heard that people have been given masks or hand sanitizer."

NYC's Department of Homeless Services told CBS News that "shelters have been provided with cleaning supplies and are cleaned regularly," and that "the City's Health experts at the Department of Health only recommend putting masks on symptomatic clients."

The department said shelters "have sufficient supply of PPE [personal protective equipment" and "enough masks to put on symptomatic clients." 

The department added that clients who have symptoms do not remain on-site and there is a "clear protocol for immediately connecting symptomatic clients to care, so they are promptly transported either to the hospital as needed or to isolation for monitoring or recovery." 

DHS has developed approximately 500 isolation units in four locations in New York City. There are currently 71 individuals isolated in three of those locations. 

"Across government, we are working in lock step during unprecedented times to implement unprecedented solutions at a scale and speed never before seen, adapting every day to this changing daily landscape and ensuring we support our most vulnerable City residents every step of the way," said Isaac McGinn, press secretary of DSS. "...For any New Yorker who we serve who expresses experiencing symptoms, we continue to immediately connect them to hospital care if needed or to isolation for monitoring and recovery, coordinating closely with health experts, partners across government, and the not-for-profit community every step of the way."

Neither Governor Andrew Cuomo nor Mayor Bill de Blasio responded to CBS News' requests for comment. 

In a document published on its website, the Coalition for the Homeless explains that those living in shelters are not always able to practice good hygiene because of a "lack of soap, shared bathrooms, and inoperable fixtures," and face "serious shortages" of staff to provide food and cleaning services.

The Department of Social Services has extended and staggered meal times in an effort to increase social distancing, and has instructed shelters to isolate those with coronavirus symptoms in separate rooms. But Loonam said that shelters have been over capacity since before the outbreak began. 

"The fact of the matter is, as long as the shelter population remains in the tens of thousands, this is going to be a constant threat," Loonam said. "Health problems like this are going to just be more and more serious for this population."

There are approximately 450 homeless shelters in New York City, according to a report from City Council Speaker Corey Johnson — but a 2018 DHS report found that only 97 shelters have on-site medical health services. The DHS did not respond to a request for more current data. 

The thousands of people living on the streets face even harsher circumstances, advocates said. 

In policy recommendations published on their website, the Coalition for the Homeless notes that as businesses and public spaces close, there is even more limited access to food, bathrooms, and basic hygiene supplies, which also puts the population at increased risk of mental illness and physical health conditions.  

New York City's Department of Homeless Services has enacted some measures to address the situation. DSS has street outreach workers who are attempting to identify homeless individuals with coronavirus symptoms. If they identify someone with symptoms, they will connect them to the city's Health and Hospitals system to get tested and treated. So far, DSS has sent six unsheltered homeless individuals to get tested, but there haven't been any positive cases. 

But Giselle Routhier, policy director of the Coalition for the Homeless, told CBS News that they are "still facing key gaps." 

"We are calling on the City to immediately open sufficient isolation space for homeless adults who are symptomatic, but who do not require hospitalization," she said. "They are at the very beginning phases of doing this and it needs to be ramped up ASAP."

On the West Coast, some cities, counties and states are taking more concrete action. A homeless shelter in Seattle's King County — one of the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus in the U.S. — was given funding and guidance from the county to help cover additional staffing and medical and cleaning supplies.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom authorized $150 million in emergency funding on March 18 to help the state's homeless. The money is going toward local governments for shelter support and emergency housing, and will also be used to purchase travel trailers and lease rooms in hotels and other facilities for "immediate isolation placements." 

The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) also includes measures to help those experiencing homelessness. Although the original bill did not include any mentions of the homeless community, on March 25, the Senate passed measures to allocate funds to affordable housing and homelessness assistance programs.

The package, which President Donald Trump signed on March 27, includes $4 billion in homeless assistance grants, $1.25 billion in tenant-based rental assistance, $1 billion in project-based rental assistance, and $25 million for runaway and homeless youth programs. 

VOCAL-NY and other local organizations wrote a letter to Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio on the matter, demanding "emergency action." The letter, posted on Medium, calls for hand-washing stations, portable toilets, hygiene kits, and other basic necessities to be made available to homeless individuals; an end to stops, tickets and arrests for low-level offenses; better access to food and shelter; and access to quality health care.  

"Homeless people are human beings: they are our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Their lives are not disposable and their needs must be addressed with the same urgency and compassion as those who have housing," the letter says. "COVID-19 is not the first public health crisis, nor will it be the last." 

Without these additional resources and assistance, Loonam fears New York City's homeless population is looking at a potentially "really serious catastrophe."

"We are risking a situation where poor black and brown folks who are stuck in the shelter end up bearing the brunt of this disease, and folks who have really no good options are gonna end up in ICU beds that very quickly become overcrowded," he said. "Cuomo said … 'my mother's not expendable, your mother's not expendable. We're never gonna sacrifice people's lives in the interest of the economy.' … Were those lives important a year ago as more and more people were entering the shelter and you were doing very, very little to provide them options?"

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional information provided by New York City's Department of Social Services.

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