COVID-19 pandemic

Stay Home: Without shelter, RI’s homeless population struggles with following the state’s directive

For homeless Rhode Islanders, the coronavirus has made a precarious life harder and more dangerous. “Our population is more vulnerable than the general public. The average mortality rate is 49.5 years… The solution is housing,” says Caitlin Frumerie, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. In addition to hardships such as extreme stress, pre-existing health conditions, poor access to medical care, a higher probability of smoking and hunger, homeless people now must battle the coronavirus outbreak in Rhode Island without a safe haven. 

For most Rhode Islanders, self-quaratining and social distancing means stocking up the fridge and pantry, playing board games and sanitizing surfaces. For the homeless, self-quarantining means staying inside as much as possible, which means finding shelters that are open during the day, seeking alternatives when outdoor meal sites are closed, and finding access to sanitizer and washrooms. “Imagine being a family who’s living in a car and trying to store things [like frozen food or produce],” says Frumerie. Shelters statewide are doing their best to accommodate their needs.

The big question is what shelters will do if someone shows symptoms of COVID-19. On March 23, Sojourner House reported that there haven’t been any cases of infection at their shelter, but they don’t expect that to be the case forever. If a client shows symptoms, staff will seek medical advice over the phone. They may then ask the client to stay in a private room, or they will provide immediate transportation to a medical facility.

Because of the high demand, many RI shelters cap the number of days a person can stay, which forces homeless people to move from shelter to shelter. This is called shelter-hopping. Because shelter-hopping can spread infection, these caps are now gone or have been extended. Sojourner House’s shelters have never limited the number of days their clients can stay.     

“A week ago, we planned [for the outbreak] and got more beds and food so facilities could be open longer. We also planned for staffing and transportation,” says Frumerie. Night-time shelters now have extended hours during the day. Staff members have been working overtime to staff the longer hours and cover for at-risk employees who are taking time off. Some shelters, such as Amos House in PVD, now serve bagged lunches rather than serving communal meals. Beds have been placed 6 feet apart as recommended by the CDC.  

Statewide shelters are in constant communication with another. This helps ensure supplies are getting to where they are needed. For instance, if one shelter has too many gloves, the gloves are transported to a shelter that needs them. Yet even with good planning, intra-organizational communication and co-ordinating with the Health Department, “Masks have been hard to come by,” says Frumerie.

On a positive note, “[There has been] a lot of compassion [from the community] that’s been above and beyond,” Frumerie says. This gives her hope for the future because it’s a sign that more people are “waking up to the housing crisis.”

If you are in need of a shelter or a meal, or would like to donate, all the latest information about shelters in Rhode Island and their response to the COVID-19 virus can be found here: rihomeless.org/covid-19 Due to contamination issues, shelters currently cannot accept item donations such as blankets, but will gladly accept monetary donations as well as sealed, medical-grade masks from practitioners or others who have extra.

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