Coronavirus hot spots in Texas homeless shelters highlight challenges unsheltered residents face social distancing, staying clean

Photo does not have a caption

A large homeless camp near downtown Houston in 2019. Mayor Sylvester Turner said homeless shelters have become a hot spot for coronavirus. Health officials advise against moving homeless encampments during the pandemic, though they suggest homeless people have 144 square feet of space per person. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Nursing homes, jails and prisons have become well-known locations for coronavirus outbreaks, but Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has identified another major hotspot for COVID-19 cases in his city: homeless shelters.

Speaking at a Houston food distribution drive Saturday, where he was volunteering, Turner said 77 of the 183 additional people who had tested positive for the virus lived in homeless shelters, ABC13 Houston reported.

"We are now testing people in our homeless shelter, and what we are finding is there are people who are infected with this virus,” Turner said, according to the news report. “We are engaging in social distancing and spreading them out.”

Clusters of COVID-19 positive cases have been reported in homeless shelters across the state: Austin’s downtown Salvation Army homeless shelter closed in mid-April after 12 people there tested positive, resulting in all 187 residents being moved to a hotel leased by the city of Austin. Days later, the Dallas Life homeless shelter reported 38 cases in its facility.

Large homeless shelters are traditionally very tight, congregate quarters, with people often sleeping in bunks lined up close together or side-by-side on mats on the floor. The National Alliance to End Homelessness recommends creating additional capacity to limit the spread of COVID-19, allowing shelters to stay open 24 hours a day (some usually only operate at night, for example), and create shelter space for people who are more susceptible to disease.

Houston, Austin and Dallas, in addition to other Texas cities, have over the last two months opened additional space for homeless people, in hotels and convention centers, but many of the services where homeless people traditionally turned for help have had to shut down or dramatically limit operations because of the virus. Some shelters stopped taking new clients altogether.

That could account for increases in homeless encampments popping up in cities across the country, an issue raised in an interview Austin Mayor Steve Adler did with Austin's KVUE on Friday. He was asked how the city plans to address homelessness, which has increased in visibility there.