David Lindstrom is 58, homeless – and has Covid-19.
“It’s not a fun trip. It kinda makes you feel like you got ran over by a Mack Truck,” Lindstrom said of having the virus. “Your body aches. Just to get out of bed, it’s like an effort, to go to the bathroom.”
But Lindstrom has a bed and a bathroom, and he’s safely quarantined and cared for at a hotel in downtown Phoenix, thanks to a cooperation between Maricopa County and Circle the City, a non-profit health care provider for the homeless.
Around the country, cities and counties are grappling with how to deal with the spread of coronavirus among the homeless, an especially vulnerable population. They are often unable to protect themselves by the simplest of actions, such as hand-washing, health experts say, and they seldom have access to quality health care.
Circle the City has 136 rooms at the Phoenix Inn available for the program, which was approved by the City Council on May 6. Lindstrom is one of more than 100 homeless people with Covid-19 who have benefited from the program so far, according to Michelle Smith, a registered nurse at the inn.
How it works
Once a homeless person tests positive for the virus, they can opt to be quarantined at the inn, where they have a private room with a queen bed, TV, telephone and a bathroom. If in need of fresh air, they can step out onto an open-air walkway.
A nurse checks in on the patients twice a day, according to Smith, and the inn is staffed through the night.
“I went through probably the toughest battle of my life,” Thomas Salts, 53, said of getting the virus after losing his car in a wreck, which caused him to lose his job. “I was kind of overwhelmed at first.”
Then he, too, was put in a room.
“The best thing about it is even when I was locked in the quarantine, I was in the room, they took great care of me,” Salts said. “They went over, above and beyond what another human being would do for someone. I couldn’t say enough thank yous,” Salts said.
The patients get three meals a day, provided by the non-profit Community Bridges Inc. (CBI), and extra snacks and drinks are just a phone call away.
Health care providers – a doctor, a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant – make the rounds once a day to “see if they need to prescribe any medications, if there’s any serious concerns they need to know about,” Smith said.
If a patient has a medical emergency, they are transported to the nearest emergency department.
“We had somebody’s oxygen levels drop to an unsafe level which is one of the bigger issues with Covid, so we sent them out immediately” on a recent morning, Smith said.
A ‘Corona Coaster’
Phoenix, with an estimated 7,419 people, ranks in the top 10 cities in the country in number of homeless, according to Statista, which used US Department of Housing and Urban Development data from late 2019. And about 70% of the state’s total homeless are in Maricopa county, according to data from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and the county’s point-in-time counts.
Some cities, including Phoenix, have opened up hotel rooms to the most vulnerable – the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Caring for those who test positive is another challenge altogether.
“It’s been the Corona Coaster, someone called it the other day,” said Lisa Glow, CEO of Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS). “You can’t even imagine the challenges (we have) as a mass shelter.”
As the Phoenix Inn opened its doors to homeless patients, the number of Covid-19 cases in the city and state were exploding. Arizona has more than 105,000 cases, – almost 65,000 of them in Maricopa County. That’s more than 10 times the 9,945 cases it had two months ago and four times the 25,614 cases it had one month ago.
Maricopa County now ranks fourth nationwide in confirmed cases by county as of July 7, behind Los Angeles, Cook and Queens counties, per Johns Hopkins University.
“It’s no easy task to keep people safe from Covid,” Glow said. “I would say we’ve probably had about 45 positives out of the thousands we’ve been serving that have come through the shelter.” However, not everyone has been tested.
Patients living at the Phoenix Inn are brought in by Community Bridges from shelters around the city, or from hospitals they’ve been discharged from.
At the CASS Adult Shelter for the homeless, weekly “blitz” testing is done where all residents are tested, and any positives are sent to the Phoenix Inn to isolate, Glow said.
For homeless people who test positive but prefer to remain on the street, Circle the City offers a “shelter in place duffle,” a bag containing a tent, two weeks’ worth of food, water, masks and other hygienic supplies, Marty Hames, the nonprofit’s community liaison, said.
Circle the City also offers “kindness kits” to homeless people who live on the streets. Those include masks and other hygiene items.
As more and more people lose their jobs in the economic crisis that the pandemic has caused, the number of homeless is bound to increase, social workers say.
“We are seeing people be evicted,” Glow said. “As people are losing their jobs and they’re becoming evicted, we are going to see more homelessness.”