How Will the Coronavirus Affect Phoenix's Homeless Population?

By Kathy Ritchie
Published: Friday, March 20, 2020 - 5:13pm

man lugging belongings
Christina Estes/KJZZ
People were told to break down tents and collect their belongings so Phoenix crews could clear and clean streets on Feb. 5, 2020.

As the city of Phoenix continues to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, many of the city’s homeless population are at risk for contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus — and possibly spreading it. So just how prepared is the city to cope with a possible influx of infections in this population? 

Lisa Glow is the CEO of CASS, a shelter in downtown Phoenix. Right now, one of her many concerns is that the homeless population staying at CASS are not able to isolate themselves.

"They are coming and going," she said. "What we did as of this last Monday is we stopped taking new intakes, except we still are getting some hospital drop offs."

Meaning a hospital calls looking for a place where they can discharge a patient.

"Yesterday we had a call from a hospital asking us to take a homeless person who they told us tested for COVID. They asked if we had a quarantine area."

Which CASS is not set up for, she said. The Arizona Department of Health says it is in the process of developing guidance related to this population. 

And Maricopa County Human Services told KJZZ that it is partnering with Public Health and other organizations like CASS to come up with a plan to separate those who are sick from those who are healthy, provide testing, as well as ways to safely isolate people.

They are also working to identify a location for temporary housing for those who are at high risk for severe illness, so they are not in a crowded like a shelter such as CASS, where COVID-19 might spread easily.

It's an issue that Lisa Glow has been fighting for, especially for those senior citizens who are especially vulnerable to coronavirus and are homeless.

In fact, there was a bill moving through the Arizona Legislature that would have allocated funding for a separate senior shelter. Yet, despite bipartisan support, it may not get into the budget because of what's happening at the Legislature and efforts to produce a more slimmed down budget.

"And for us, that's kind of tragic in a way," she said. "Because here we're faced right now with a crisis of so many seniors, we need to get out of shelter. If we had a separate shelter, we wouldn't be in this crisis."

Something else the coronavirus has done? It has exposed holes in the social safety net, which many of us assume will support those in crisis.

Amy Schwabenleder is the executive director of the Human Services Campus, which is home to several nonprofits geared toward helping the city’s homeless population.

"And we were already stretched in dealing with those holes every day in the safety net," she said. "So, I hope once this is over whenever that is, that everybody has really learned a lot about how we have to work together collectively and have a strong safety net."

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