As delta variant spreads, organizations open isolation site at hotel for those facing homelessness

A file photo of a hotel room (FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As the coronavirus delta variant surges in the community, it’s also affecting those experiencing homelessness.

“Living in close quarters and being outside, they are especially vulnerable to the delta variant and COVID in general, so we’re trying to ensure that they have a place, No. 1, where they can be safe,” said Dawn Gilman, CEO of Changing Homelessness.

To help curb the spread, two and a half weeks ago, local organizations opened an isolation facility at a hotel, the location of which was not released to protect those inside.

Changing Homelessness said the first priority is to get anyone who is on the street and COVID-19 positive into a place where they can self-isolate. The second priority is to help local hospitals by having anyone who is homeless and medically stable safely released to isolate at the hotel, making space at the hospitals for others who need it.

The isolation hotel opened two and a half weeks ago to undisclosed location to protect the people staying. Changing Homelessness says their priority is to get anyone on the street that has tested positive for COVID into a place to self-isolate.

Across Northeast Florida, there’s an increase of people experiencing homelessness who now also have COVID-19.

“Homeless is a highly vulnerable population,” said Carina Saladino, executive director of the Mission House. “So when we see a spread, it’s very rapidly.”

Saladino said there are 30 people currently isolating in the 25 available rooms and the isolation hotel is at capacity.

“It gives us the opportunity to also give them a plan for the future both from a medical perspective to make sure they have a primary care to follow up with, but it also gives us a social perspective where we can get them into housing into shelter or transitional care,” said Saladino.

Gilman said shelters are seeing outbreaks.

“Emergency shelters are congregate living situation,” she said. “Our shelters are doing everything possible to try to minimize that risk. I believe at this point every shelter within Jacksonville has had both clients and staff who have contracted COVID-19.”

Gilman said that while the isolation hotel is at capacity, she’s looking to expand.

In February, a homeless camp, which was referred to as Tent City, in downtown Jacksonville closed. Organizations helped those people move into extended-stay hotels, and that effort is still going and has expanded out of need.

“We continue as a community to run over 150 different non-congregate shelters,” said Gilman. “Those are hotel rooms scattered throughout our community. The majority of those rooms are for persons who were living on the street and had an underlying condition that made them especially susceptible to COVID.”

Helping up to 300 people at any given time is made possible through federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Changing Homelessness received a total of $11 million. This grant can be used for street outreach and non-congregate shelters.

When someone reaches their 10-day isolation, Changing Homelessness said, the goal is working on an exit plan so they don’t end up back on the street. That could mean a boarding room or connecting with family members.

Organizations need bottled water, underwear for both men and women, N95 masks, gowns, medical gloves, face shields, Lysol spray, antibacterial wipes and paper towels. Donations can be dropped off at the Mission House, Changing Homelessness or Overflow Health Alliance.

“Our main partners on this have all stepped up and have done a lot of different things -- some of them that they normally do, most of them doing things that they did not do before,” said Gilman. “MHRC normally does not run a shelter and now they’re running a non-congregate shelter for us. Sulzbacher is doing all sorts of different things from rapid rehousing to really gearing up for their federally qualified health care clinic and vaccines. City Rescue Mission has expanded and shifted around how they’re able to allow people to come into the shelter to allow more people to come off the street into a more protected environment. Mission House also does not run a shelter and they are. Prior to that, they did a small amount of rapid rehousing, which is our main intervention to get people back into housing. They’re doing a tremendous amount of that. Catholic Charities is helping with rapid rehousing. Jewish Family is one of our prevention providers. Clara White Mission has stepped in when we were doing a lot of work with the encampment downtown as the Trinity Rescue Mission. And we’ve started to expand to new providers.”

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