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

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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.

"Folks experiencing homelessness is one of the big challenges that you have during something like this virus because quite frankly it's a really susceptible and vulnerable population," Adler told KVUE, describing the city's efforts to acquire places where homeless people can isolate.

He added the city plans to vote this week on acquiring another motel to house homeless people.

Austin so far has created two new kinds of spaces where homeless people can go. That includes protected facilities, which are exclusively for homeless people at risk for the virus or else have recovered from COVID-19 but have nowhere else to go. Homeless people can also stay in the city's isolation facilities, for anyone who has a positive diagnoses, is waiting on test results or needs to quarantine and has nowhere safe to do so.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that people living unsheltered in unsanctioned encampments should be allowed to remain where they are, if no housing options are available. The agency does recommend encouraging campers to set up their living areas with at least 144 square feet for each individual — but that can be difficult to achieve. People often stay in such encampments because of the protection offered by other people, and it's typical for more than one person to live in a single tent.

Austin's unsheltered homeless population increased by 45% — 488 additional people — from 2019 to this year, according to the city and county's point-in-time count, a snapshot of a region's homeless population on any given night and usually assumed to be an undercount.

Homeless people, especially those who’ve been houseless for an extended period of time, are thought to be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because they often have weakened immune systems. Nationally, the country’s homeless population is also aging rapidly: 40% of the 1 million people the National Health Care for the Homeless Council served were over the age of 50 in 2019.

Disclosure: Steve Adler is a former Texas Tribune board chairman and has been a financial supporter of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.