Homeless Population Fear Shelters for Possible COVID-19 Exposure

A large population of people already in poor health living on the street has serious coronavirus concerns.

For those living in close quarters in city-run shelters, there’s the fear of exposure to COVID-19. The Department of Homeless Services has identified more than 650 cases and more than 50 COVID-19 deaths among the 17,000 single adults in its shelter system.

For the estimated 3,500 homeless New Yorkers who live on the streets, including most of those lined up outside St. Bart’s, worries about the disease are coupled with other new indignities.

Scores of them, opting to sleep on the subways, were removed from the trains by police in a clearance operation last week. And with so many closures of coffee shops, rehab centers, even the restrooms at Grand Central Station, it’s harder than ever to find a bathroom they can use or a place to take a shower.


Juan De La Cruz - Homeless Population Fear Shelters for Possible COVID-19 Exposure

In this Friday, April 24, 2020, photo, Juan De La Cruz stands beside his staff while they provide meals to people in need through the Coalition for the Homeless organization, at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York. He says many of his clients — despite their deprivations — don’t want to stay at city-run shelters. “People are scared to be there,” he said. “They don’t want to be inside because of the COVID-19 situation.” (AP Photo/John Minchillo)


]Juan de la Cruz, who oversees the St. Bart’s meal service on behalf of New York’s Coalition for the Homeless, says many of his clients — despite their deprivations — don’t want to stay at city-run shelters.

“People are scared to be there,” he said. “They don’t want to be inside because of the COVID-19 situation.”

But on the streets, he says, many lacks “the simple things we take for granted.”

Before the pandemic, de la Cruz said, the meal service menus were often enhanced by food donations from nearby corporate cafeterias. Now, with most offices closed, the servings are repetitive: cartons of milk, oranges, soup, simple sandwiches.

Ryan O’Connor has befriended many of the soup kitchen’s clients for five years with the homeless coalition. One of his saddest recent conversations was with a homeless man who’d been able to shower regularly thanks to a discounted gym membership — and now cannot because gyms are closed.

O’Connor says clients often ask where they should stay at night. He’ll provide a list of shelters but doesn’t offer recommendations.

“Suggesting someone go to a shelter — right now, it doesn’t seem right,” he said.

Among the hundreds of homeless people who’ve been sleeping in the subways is Robin Gibbs, 50. He’s been homeless since losing his job as a warehouse supervisor four years ago.

“Things just went out of control,” he said. “I hit the streets — it’s been a nightmare since then.‘”

He has no interest in returning to city-run shelters. Men familiar with them talk about staff burned out by overwork, and newly arrived clients aghast as their possessions — including their shoes — are stolen.

“A lot of people don’t want to go to them,” Gibbs said. “There are too many fights, too many drugs, too many gangs.”

Gibbs, a native of Trinidad, came to New York as a teenager. The worst part of his life now, he says, is the limited access to bathrooms and showers. He and other regulars of the meal operation at St. Bart’s formerly used bathrooms inside the church; now it’s closed.

“It’s tough when you turn to the church and they close the doors,” Gibbs said.


Robert Boast 60 says there is no way of knowing who is infected with COVID 19 in the citys temporary overnight shelters. - Homeless Population Fear Shelters for Possible COVID-19 Exposure

Robert Boast, 60, says there is no way of knowing who is infected with COVID-19 in the city’s temporary overnight shelters.


Robert Boast is more frightened of coronavirus than dying from stage four cancer.

The 60-year-old Toronto man has been in and out of homeless shelters and has incurable prostate and colon cancer.

“I get the cancer thing — that’s kind of inevitable — [but] it’s made me more vulnerable,” he told White Coat, Black Art’s Dr. Brian Goldman.

He was asked to leave a downtown shelter after testing positive for cannabis and is now staying with a friend in the city’s west end.

But Boast says he’s in no hurry to return to a shelter, given what he’s heard about the conditions during COVID-19.

“You’re going into a shelter with 30 other men and you don’t know who they are,” he said.

Even though the shelter is closed to the hospital where he’s treated, Boast says he would much “rather sleep on the street” than go back because “at least the streets have fresh air” and he can pick and choose the people he wants to be around.

In the city’s temporary overnight shelters, there is no way of knowing who has been exposed or is infected, he said.

“They need to be tested before they even get in the building,” Boast said.


Emily Gerteis - Homeless Population Fear Shelters for Possible COVID-19 Exposure

Emily Gerteis Matthew McDermott


Emily Gerteis is a nurse practitioner, but she’s not toiling away at Big Apple hospitals — she’s a primary care medical provider for homeless New Yorkers.

“It really is a crisis within a crisis,” Gerteis, 34, told The Post of how the pandemic has compounded the city’s enormous homeless dilemma.

“They don’t have access to stay at home. They don’t have a home, so they do not have that privilege to self-isolate, to quarantine themselves away from others. They don’t have access to bathrooms to wash their hands. They don’t have money for masks or gloves,” Gerteis, a medical director at the Center for Urban Community Services’ Janian Health, went on.

“They rely on folks to help work with them to get them housed and to get them off the street. And with essential staffing and things like that [cut during the crisis], they have less help these days, there’s less to be had, so they’re particularly at risk for getting ill and not being noticed.”

Early on in the crisis, Gerteis came down with what she’s sure was COVID-19 but she was unable to get tested, so she hunkered down and waited for the symptoms to subside while continuing to work from home.

“There was too much to do. There were too many things changing at that time … I couldn’t stop,” Gerteis, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant with her wife and two cats, explained.

“There’s no one to cover you, right, when you work in this type of work.”

By Monday, March 30, after a little over a week at home, Gerteis was already back at the Times Square Hotel where CUCS runs a supportive housing program for formerly homeless individuals with a history of mental illness or serious chronic health conditions.

“We have some high-risk staff that we had to pull from the field … I felt a big responsibility to my patients to return and to make sure that their health is managed,” Gerteis said of her decision to come back so quickly.

“It’s so amazing seeing all these [medical workers] coming back and you know, the military coming in to help the hospitals in New York City, but we know in our line of work that there’s no one that’s going to relieve us, so we have to keep going.”

Gerteis said she provides “typical family doctor services” — like getting patients to cardiology appointments, prescribing them medication, helping with wound care, and counseling them on their diabetes.

She’s still doing that now — but with the “added twist” of dealing with her patient’s normal physical and mental illnesses and how they’re compounded with “a lot of anxiety” and “a lot of fear” that arose during the crisis.

“Whatever you’ve been dealing with day-to-day during normal life is being exacerbated right now,” Gerteis explained.

“So if you hear voices, the voices are definitely having an uptick. If you have anxiety and depression, those are getting worse. And you know, if you are easily kind of startled or easily quick to anger, those things are hard for you to handle right now.”

She said the underlying issue for most of the homeless she serves is “fear.” For many, it’s difficult to enter the shelter system but the pandemic has made it that much harder.

“They’re afraid that there is no safe place to go and the places that we normally create, right, these mental health shelters for people that have lived on the street for a year or more, right, they no longer feel safe at these places because of coronavirus,” Gerteis said.

While her work is difficult, Gerteis finds joy in tackling those tough issues. She described how she taught a patient who suffers from schizophrenia how to wear a mask properly, what the virus is all about, and how they can keep themselves safe.


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