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As the Coronavirus Pandemic Worsens, Olympia’s Homeless Community Scrambles for Support

The COVID-19 crisis is shining a light on America’s worsening housing crisis and limited resources for response.

(Photo by Marc Gutierrez via Getty Images)

As the Coronavirus Pandemic Worsens, Olympia’s Homeless Community Scrambles for Support

The COVID-19 crisis is shining a light on America’s worsening housing crisis and limited resources for response.


For C-C Coates, everyday breathing is like “trying to take a jog while getting your air through a straw.” The 51-year-old has had chronic respiratory issues for nearly two decades, including annual bouts of bronchitis. Those difficulties make it hard for her to find and keep regular work, she says, since she sometimes has to rest for weeks at a time. Without steady income, about five years ago she wound up living in her vehicle, a white van she parks on the outskirts of Olympia, Washington. She has cleared off the front seat to make way for a big “Disabled People Need Homes” sign.

Coates says she normally goes to the hospital several times a year when her breathing becomes especially labored. “Even on the best of days my lung capacity is toast.” But these days, she’s doing everything she can to avoid the hospital, as the coronavirus descends on western Washington, which was initially the heart of America’s outbreak. Coates has stopped going to soup kitchens because she says too many people congregate there; friends pick up provisions from the food bank for her. She’s trying to limit trips to the grocery store, too. “I’m in the canary zone for this particular virus,” she said. “When I say the virus will kill me, it’s probably the truth.”

Olympia is a town of just 50,000 but home to 835 of Washington’s estimated 21,577 homeless people (advocates say that both numbers are most likely extremely conservative). As such, Olympia is emblematic of towns across Washington and the entire West Coast, where the unhoused population is increasing sharply, fast outpacing services.

Now, as the novel coronavirus spreads across the Pacific Northwest, Olympia’s homeless community, and city and county officials, are bracing for the worst. No homeless person has tested positive yet, although there is very limited access to testing, with tests primarily reserved for those with symptoms who seek medical care. Officials, advocates for homeless people, and the unhoused themselves are trying to figure out how to enact Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations like social distancing and regular handwashing for a population that’s chronically short of services. And they’re doing so improvisationally, with little support or guidance from the state or federal government. 

In the last few weeks, the city installed six handwashing stations and portable toilets in areas highly trafficked by the homeless community, and 10 highly vulnerable people have been placed in hotel rooms for two weeks, with the potential to keep them there longer. But the majority of unhoused people have been told to shelter in place, while outreach teams make daily rounds and offer blankets, food, tents, sleeping bags, and information about COVID-19 and where to seek help. 

These efforts have been supported by a $1 million emergency grant, part of a $200 million response effort announced by Governor Jay Inslee this month. But that’s “just a drop in the bucket” compared to what is needed, says Tye Gundel, an organizer with Just Housing, a service and advocacy group that Coates is a part of that works closely with the city and the county. 

“We’ve already overspent already, and it’s only for three months,” Keylee Marineau, who works with the Office of Housing and Homeless Prevention at Thurston County, said of the grant. The money is going toward necessities like hot meals and more handwashing stations, which are urgently needed now that most public bathrooms have been closed to help enact social distancing. 

“This is the time when we need as much access to bathrooms as possible and we have the opposite,” said Gundel, who estimates that the new makeshift toilets don’t come close to making up for those that have been shuttered. Keith Stahley, interim assistant city manager for the City of Olympia, says that the city is hoping to “meet or exceed the demand” for bathrooms and handwashing stations, but it only has $50,000 to do so. Already, the city’s vendor has run out of portable restrooms.

Yesterday, the public bathroom that Coates relied on was closed due to public safety concerns. With it went her only source of fresh water and the only place she could wash her hands. “Now, I’m going to wander around town without being able to wash my hands and infecting everyone I meet” if she contracts the virus, she said. “The city is not taking into account older, vulnerable adults on the street. They’re just going to let you die.” Already closures of other public places made it hard for Coates to stay clean and healthy: She can no longer go to the gym where she has a membership to take a shower. 

There are even bigger questions about how, whether, and when to get people into shelter. The 10 people given hotel rooms so far were chosen from Olympia’s mitigation site, a sanctioned tent encampment. They were selected because they were considered particularly vulnerable—older, and with underlying health conditions. But there are many people living on the street, like Coates, who are also at risk but don’t live in the mitigation site and could be passed over. There are also no clear guidelines on who should be offered extra services, or when, although the city, the county, and service providers have been meeting regularly to try to deal with an emerging situation and plan ahead. “This is unprecedented and it is an ever-evolving, changing landscape,” Marineau said. 

Stahley says the city and county are faced with the question of whether to put limited resources toward trying to proactively prevent the spread of the virus, or supporting people when they have symptoms or test positive. “There’s this incredible tension between, ‘Hey, we need to get people who may get sick out of harm’s way’ and ‘We need to reserve our resources for people who are actually sick,’” he said. 

 

This is the time when we need as much access to bathrooms as possible and we have the opposite.Tye Gundel, organizer with Just Housing

At the same time, other services, like shelters, are reducing the number of beds available as they try to enact CDC guidelines that people should stay at least six feet apart. Marineau estimated this could result in the loss of up to 45 shelter beds. Although there are plans for an additional shelter, it will most likely only be able to hold 25 to 30 people. What happens to the people who don’t have a spot is “a very good question,” she said. “There are people who have been staying in shelters for years and they may have to say that for health and safety we have to kick you out on the streets,” said Gundel. “That’s unprecedented on so many levels.”

Meg Martin is the executive director of Interfaith Works and oversees a 42-bed shelter in downtown Olympia. She says she has been told that 17 of these beds will have to be closed to make more space, but she’s adamant that she won’t implement the six-foot guidance until new options become available; she’s working with the county and city to ensure a new shelter is opened. “I feel like the risk of harm from closing these essential spaces outweighs the risk from coronavirus. These CDC recommendations are for a very unique set of circumstances for folks that are sheltered,” she said. 

“There’s a 30-day eviction moratorium here in Washington,” she added. “How does that apply to people in shelters?” But Martin also notes that Interfaith is struggling to both maintain basic services and keep the shelter safe given limited resources. A call has been put out to community members, asking for donations of essential supplies like masks and thermometers. Interfaith is also hiring more staff, mostly service workers who are now unemployed, to help with the extra work required to keep the shelter healthy and safe.

All this was in motion before anyone has been confirmed to be sick. California, where at least one unhoused person was confirmed to have died from COVID-19, has announced ambitious plans to offer short-term shelter, mostly in motel and hotel rooms, to anyone who is particularly vulnerable, has symptoms or has tested positive. But for now, all that Olympia can do is provide transport to the hospital if someone becomes seriously ill. There isn’t a place for a person with exposure or mild symptoms to safely quarantine, although there are discussions about turning empty buildings like summer camps and shuttered schools into makeshift shelters, as well as placing more people in hotel rooms as needed. 

Until this happens, if someone shows up at a shelter or the mitigation site with a fever, “there’s nowhere for them to go,” said Martin, who noted that getting a new site set up “is not just about finding a place to put people” but also staffing it, especially to support with mental health and substance use issues. She also wondered about what would happen to the extra services that are provided when the outbreak is finally over. “Are we just going to say the pandemic is over but your pandemic of poverty and homelessness remains? Is it just back to business as usual?”

Gundel sees this as a time to consider larger changes. “It’s unavoidable that we’re going to see more people on the streets as this goes forward,” she said, given that the economy is tipping toward recession. “So we need to be proactive. It’s about will. There is no lack of space. Even before this, we had so many vacant buildings downtown. There is no reason we can’t house everyone.”

With limited government support, some activists are taking drastic measures to push for increased affordable housing. In Los Angeles, activists have taken over an empty home to highlight the link between lack of affordable housing and vulnerability to coronavirus. 

“Our response to this needs to be proportionate to the situation and it needs to be complete systemic change,” Gundel said.

Coates, who has been watching debates over the national coronavirus bailout unfold, agreed. “If they can come up with that kind of money, then they could get rid of homelessness within a year, or at least get us into shelter,” she said. For her, the pandemic simply amplifies the problems she has seen for decades as someone living on the economic edge. “We need to be honest about the fact that we don’t have a social safety net in America. It’s more like a rope you can hang on to for some time.” 

Without that net, Coates is planning for the worst. She has a respiratory mask that she’ll wear over her mouth, hopefully to protect herself and others, when she takes what she sees as the inevitable trip to the hospital. She just hopes “that there will be a bed for me.” Barring that, Coates said she’s trying to make a homemade ventilator, “but I need a pump.”