Helping the homeless: DHSS response teams aim to keep vulnerable safe from COVID-19

The Delaware Department of Health and Social Services put together a Kent County coronavirus response team, aimed at protecting the vulnerable homeless population in the Dover area, and tested many for COVID-19 symptoms at the Hopes and Dreams Peer Resource Center off West Division Street on Tuesday, March 24. They also put nearly 60 homeless people into Dover motels for shelter. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — There are many people complaining that they are being forced to stay at home as part of Gov. John Carney’s State of Emergency in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Those same people probably wouldn’t want to swap places with the estimated 300 or so people who are homeless in the Dover area, many of whom are still out on the streets in the cold and unsure of the health conditions of the people they are traveling with and sleeping among.

While the homeless population has largely been ignored during this national crisis, the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services has created teams for all three counties in the state to screen the homeless for COVID-19 symptoms and other underlying heath issues, provide them with a healthy lunch, socks, and check to see if they qualify for a motel voucher.

Former Delaware Department of Health and Social Services Director Rita Landgraf has been placed in charge of finding solutions for the state’s homeless population and keeping them safe.

The DHSS Kent County response team began its initiative to help the homeless on March 24 at the Hopes and Dreams Peer Resource Center at 621 W. Division St. in Dover.

In an effort coordinated by DHSS, staff from state government and the nonprofit and health care sectors began outreach efforts to keep the homeless healthy. Susan Holloway, from DHSS’ Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health — which is providing the bulk of the funding — joined St. Francis emergency department Dr. Sandy Gibney, Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long and others in Dover.

They used a Brandywine Counseling and Community Services mobile unit as the anchor at each stop.

“When I was on the ground at Hopes and Dreams in Dover, they (the homeless) were absolutely grateful,” said Jill Fredel, spokesperson for the DHSS. “Dr. Gibney was screening for COVID-19 and didn’t find anybody who had symptoms, but she did find (a person) with a cut and she took care of that, and some other medical issues and took care of those. She did not find any symptoms or people at risk for COVID-19.

“Everybody also got a bag of food and they were very grateful for that and we had many people who were taken to hotels in Dover.”

The group of outreach workers at Hopes and Dreams, led by Dr. Gibney and Ms. Holloway, screened 323 people — half of whom were homeless — for symptoms of the virus. The group also took around 59 at-risk homeless people to motels for temporary shelter and sent specimens from two people to commercial laboratories to be tested for the virus.

The New Castle County response team reached out to the homeless on March 25 in Wilmington and the Sussex County team is expected to be put to work in Georgetown today.

Homeless population a moving target

Gov. John Carney said he knows trying to make sure the homeless population is safe is a moving target.

“Obviously one of the biggest challenges there is that so many of the places that [homeless people] go to during the day are (currently) closed down,” he said. “There are services that we’re trying to stand up, that we’re trying to make sure they’re safe, that they’re separate from each other.”

Mrs. Fredel said the governor asked Ms. Landgraf to come aboard and help coordinate the program.

“Rita (Landgraf) has been organizing teams in each county to go out and to screen anybody with symptoms of COVID-19 among the homeless population and if they find anybody then they isolate them, because if they find one person then they can expect lots of people (to have it),” Mrs. Fredel said.

“Secondly, is to provide some social services to folks, but also to look for people who have serious and persistent mental illness who are homeless because we have a bucket of money within the DHSS that we can house people with that bucket, and also to look for anybody who qualifies because they’re eligible for emergency shelter.”

It was that emergency shelter part that excited Ennio Emmanuel, director of Code Purple Kent County, so much when he saw nearly 60 members of the homeless population in Dover taken to the Super 8 or the Dover Inn.

Mr. Emmanuel said that along with the DHSS’ contribution of shelter space, around 100 total homeless people were put into those Dover motels last week.

“I think now is a place where a lot of people and a lot of families are closing their doors, a lot of the public has closed their doors, so it’s a time when a lot of homeless people are just in trouble, in their car or wherever they may be,” said Mr. Emmanuel. “They really feel alone, and they don’t know what’s going to happen.

“So, I think with this happening there’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. The (homeless) felt cared for and felt like someone was there for them and I think that’s what we have to do is just avoid having people from continuing to be homeless or going back to drug addiction or alcoholism. We’ve got to give them avenues to show them people care.”

Even with temporary shelter for the homeless to ride out COVID-19, there are challenges, he said.

“We (at Code Purple) have to feed around 200 people, 100 at lunch and 100 at dinner, and then you have a lot of people who straggle,” Mr. Emmanuel said, “and because the homeless people are at hotels their friends and sometimes their family members come and visit so we end up seeing like upwards of 150 people for lunch and around 150 people for dinner giving out extra meals. Hopes and Dreams does the breakfasts.”

DHSS mission is just getting started

Mrs. Fredel said DHSS is using pre-existing emergency shelter and Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse motel vouchers for funding for those who qualify. They also said they will find a way to pay for motels to those who might not qualify but are vulnerable to get the virus.

“They’ve always had these programs in place, even before COVID-19,” she said. “Within that Division of Social Services program, for emergency shelter, if you meet the requirements then we can put you up in a motel until you hit that threshold of four weeks.”

DHSS officials said they hope additional funding expected to come to the state from the federal relief bill that was signed by President Donald Trump last Friday will be available for sheltering even more people.

For Ms. Landgraf and her response teams, this mission is only getting started. She plans on continuing to make return trips to each county until the crisis is over.

“We’re going to keep going back because a person might not have symptoms today, but they could have symptoms in three to five days,” she said. “We have to keep going back. From my perspective, it’s probably a matter of time that we will get a positive [COVID-19 test from a homeless person].”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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