‘Likely a Death Sentence’: Officials Fear Cold Weather Is Greater Risk for Homeless than Virus


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For weeks after he opened a daytime shelter for the homeless, Jae Bennett was fairly rigid about the building’s 37-person capacity. The last thing he wanted was for a lapse in social distancing to cause the deadly coronavirus to spread among a population in which many people were in frail health.

But then temperatures in Kansas City, Mo., plunged into the single digits a little more than a week ago and stayed there, the coldest arctic blast of the season. And Mr. Bennett looked into the eyes of people waiting outside because the squat, brown building was full.

“I said, ‘Screw it, just come in,’” said Mr. Bennett, who founded a nonprofit organization, Street Medicine Kansas City, six years ago. “What’s the option? Follow the health code for Covid, or put them in the cold and let them die?”

Cold weather and the nation’s homeless crisis have long been a fatal mix that community advocates and public officials have struggled to address. But this winter, the coronavirus has added a dangerous new complication as cities and community groups wrestle with how to shelter members of a vulnerable population from the elements while not exposing them to an airborne virus that spreads most easily indoors.

The calculation has taken on greater urgency in recent days as arctic weather freezes a large swath of the middle of the country, from Minnesota to Texas, with wind chills expected to dip as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit in some places.

Officials in Ramsey County, Minn., which includes St. Paul, have set up shelters in a vacant hospital and a vacant seminary dormitory so that they can better distance homeless residents from one another. Chicago officials have used former school buildings as well as Salvation Army and Y.M.C.A. locations to give service providers more space for shelter beds. New Life Center, a nonprofit rescue mission in Fargo, N.D., outfitted an abandoned warehouse to expand its shelter capacity. And in Kansas City, where the forecast calls for a low of minus 14 degrees on Monday, officials have converted the downtown convention center — the size of eight football fields — into a shelter.

With public spaces like libraries and the dining rooms of many fast food restaurants closed, people experiencing homelessness have fewer places to warm up during the day or use the bathroom. Traditional shelters have had to reduce their capacity for social distancing.

At the same time, city leaders and advocates say the economic destruction of the pandemic has led to an increase in the number of people needing homeless services. Though there is little hard data to prove that more people have become homeless over the past year, those leaders and advocates say the anecdotal evidence is clear.

Officials with the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness have seen formerly homeless clients back on the streets, said Marqueia Watson, the executive director. They have also seen many new names on shelter rosters. And, Ms. Watson said, social service providers have told them that their phones are ringing nonstop with people who need things like rent and utility assistance.

“We’re seeing all of the harbingers of doom that we look for when we talk about homeless prevention,” she said.

Kansas City typically spends $1.5 million a year on homeless services, according to a city spokesman. But this year, with the help of federal relief funds, it plans to spend $8.5 million on programs that include paying for hotel rooms to house families and providing financial assistance to prevent evictions.

At the urging of local activists, city officials opened a temporary shelter, with a capacity of 65 people, at a community center in mid-January. The number who showed up quickly exceeded that, and city leaders had a difficult call to make.

“We made a collective decision to say, ‘Look, if any one of these people had to spend the night in the street, it’s likely a death sentence,’” said Brian Platt, the city manager. “If they come inside and there’s a possibility of spreading or catching the Covid virus, there’s a greater chance that they could live through that.”

So they allowed the shelter to operate over capacity.

That worried Anton Washington, a community organizer who helped lead the efforts to urge the city to open the temporary shelter.

“This cannot happen,” Mr. Washington recalled telling city officials, concerned about a Covid-19 outbreak as the quarters became increasingly crowded. He urged city leaders to find somewhere bigger.

The city has experienced a few minor outbreaks at shelters and among homeless individuals. Nationally, sporadic outbreaks have led to clusters of dozens of infections, though requirements for testing and reporting cases among the homeless population have not been as stringent as for other groups, like nursing home residents and prison inmates.

After San Diego officials opened a shelter in a convention center last spring, very few residents tested positive over the next several months. But after Thanksgiving, more than 150 residents tested positive, an indication of how spontaneously and rapidly the virus can spread in shelters.

By the end of January, demand was so great that Kansas City officials moved the shelter from the community center to the convention center, Bartle Hall, and named it for Scott Eicke, a 41-year-old man who lived on the streets and was found frozen to death on New Year’s Day. The population in the convention center quickly ballooned from 150 to more than 300 on Thursday, less than two weeks after it had opened.

The shelter could not have opened soon enough for Celestria Gilyard, who was evicted from her two-bedroom apartment in October after her landlord lost his Section 8 reimbursements because he failed to do repairs. Ms. Gilyard, a waitress whose livelihood was decimated by the pandemic as she received fewer shifts and tips, could not afford a deposit on a new apartment and bounced between living on the streets and in the homes of relatives and friends.

Mr. Bennett, the founder of Street Medicine, told Ms. Gilyard, 48, about the city’s shelter, and she has been sleeping there since mid-January.

“They try to get us in every night and make sure that we’re not cold,” said Ms. Gilyard, whose 12-year-old son is staying with relatives. “When we hit the door, they’re asking us, do we want snacks, hot chocolate, coffee? And they are really catering to us to the point where I just feel like anybody that’s homeless needs to just really embrace this.”

Ms. Gilyard leaves her cot at the convention center impeccably made up when she leaves each morning, with a burgundy blanket draped across it, pillows propped up and chairs on either side serving as night stands.

The experience has been comfortable to the point that concerns about the coronavirus are secondary for her.

Everyone’s temperature is checked when they enter. Masks are required. Cots are spaced in orderly rows in a bright, airy hall with polished concrete floors and high rafters that give the feel of an airplane hangar. Officials plan to start offering Covid-19 testing on site.

Colorful posters are taped to one wall with handwritten messages: “We want jobs & training.” “Housing not handcuffs.” “We got the power.”

While the city provides the space, the shelter is run by activists and community organizations. They have fashioned it as not just a place to sleep at night but as a hub where homeless people can get the services they need and organize and advocate for systemic changes to end homelessness.

“Basically, a shelter is a problem,” said Troy Robertson, 27, a community organizer who has lived on the streets off and on since he was 16.

City officials needed to “get us a space that we can call ours for temporary or permanent housing,” he added, standing in the shelter, where he volunteers. “Just a shelter overnight, to pay all this money to say, ‘Oh, we can house these people at night,’ and leave us out in the morning, is not right to me.”

That transient feeling of a shelter kept Fahri Korkmaz on the streets a few days ago, in single-digit temperatures and a biting wind that numbed fingers within 10 minutes. He was not interested in temporary relief, he said, but a place that offers services to help him get back on his feet. He had heard about the shelter at the convention center but did not know that it offered services, underscoring the challenge officials face in getting the message out to the homeless population.

Mr. Korkmaz, 45, was released from prison a couple of years ago and has been living on the streets since his car broke down five months ago. He worried about catching an illness in a shelter — though Covid-19 was not a big concern, he said. He also did not want to leave his belongings unattended because he worried they would be stolen.

So on this recent cold afternoon, he sat bundled in a gray dome tent under an interstate overpass. Wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, a red jacket and snow pants, he wrapped himself in three blankets and smoked a cigarette. He kept warm by lighting scented candles when he was awake and curling up to use his body heat when he slept.

Still, Mr. Korkmaz, a native of Turkey, conceded that there might be a limit to how much he could withstand. If temperatures were to dip as low as forecast, he said, he might have to give in and seek shelter.

“I mean, if I don’t go, I’m stupid, you know what I mean?” he said. “If I lose my hands and my feet, it’s like a self suicide, self-destruction.”

Mitch Smith contributed reporting.

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