Houston, Harris County open new homeless shelter in efforts to mitigate spread of coronavirus

HOUSTON – Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Monday that the city of Houston and Harris County have opened a new ancillary homeless shelter to ensure existing shelters can maintain social distancing.

The shelter, a former hotel, has 150 beds available and 40 are currently filled.

Houston’s homeless population are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus because many have pre existing medical conditions, they’re twice as likely to become infected, and if infected more likely to die from the disease.

Outreach teams from the city, county, and non profit organizations are combing the area daily to visit homeless camps and encourage social distancing and good hygiene, providing sanitizer, masks, and other supplies, and to check for possible virus cases.

Jonathan Danforth and his team from Search Homeless Services checked on homeless camps along the Gulf Freeway Monday.

“We haven’t screened anybody that needs to be tested at this point. The folks we’re seeing out here are pretty well in formed about social distancing.”

Joseph Babcock is one of them. He says he’s been on the street for two years. And even though he panhandles to earn money to eat, he says he’s careful about it.

“I wash my hands, take a bath, keep clean. Keep away from everybody, try to keep sanitizer,” he said.

Not an easy task when you live under a freeway, but he says he feels safer there rather than in a shelter where people are crowded together.

The city’s homeless shelters are a more critical concern because social distancing is difficult in a space were people literally sleep on top of one another.

The Star of Hope shelters are all at capacity, but a spokesman says they’re following social distancing guidelines set down by the CDC. Another long-time homeless outreach agency,

Magnificat House has locked down all of it’s sixteen small shelters after 3 unconfirmed cases were discovered two weeks ago. Those cases remain unconfirmed.

The effort appears to be paying off. Marc Eichenbaum with the Mayor’s office says so far, fewer than four cases have been confirmed among Houston’s homeless citizens.

“It seems that we’ve been able to limit the spread of COVID-19 within the homeless system for the time being,” he said.