No homeless person in San Antonio has tested positive for COVID-19 so far; they're resilient, advocates say
Homeless men and women social distance by sitting on work buckets in the side yard at Catholic Worker House (left picture
Chris Plauche, a retired doctor, takes basic vitals to screen for possible COVID-19 carriers, before homeless individuals are served
a hote meal at the Catholic Worker House. Dominga Villadiaz, right, a volunteer worker at Catholic Worker House (center picture
on Thursday, May 7, 2020, explains to Genaro Vela, who had low oxygen levels for the past three days, that he needs to be tested
for novel coronavirus. Chris Plauche (right picture
), a retired doctor, takes basic vitals of Carlos Ochoa Garcia to screen possible
COVID-19 carriers, before feeding homeless individuals at the Catholic Worker House, on May 7, 2020.
As about 200 homeless people passed through the daily meal line at Catholic Worker House, Dr. Chris Plauche ran through a list of questions
with each individual. As each one paused before the retired doctor, who's also director of the nonprofit, she clipped a pulse oximeter to
his or her finger to detect heart rate and blood oxygen saturation and asked how the person was feeling. "Do you have a cough?" she asked,
looking up from the pulse reading with piercing blue eyes. "Any trouble breathing?" Then she took the person's temperature. Plauche has been
screening the homeless who visit the house at 626 Nolan St. for the last six weeks. She's referred seven people to be tested for the fatal virus. Each result came back negative.
In fact, out of the more than 1,800 positive novel coronavirus cases in all of Bexar County, not one of them has been a homeless person,
officials said. "These people are resilient," Plauche said. "Homeless people have to be resilient to survive. And they may be resilient
to pathogens, but if they are sick we want to catch it early."
Then again, not many homeless people have been tested for the virus. Metro Health has made "universal" COVID-19 testing available in
congregate settings where a positive case occurs. That means, for example, if one person at a homeless shelter tests positive, everyone
staying there would be tested. But that hasn't happened yet.
"In our new scaled-up strategy, all congregate settings - jails, homeless shelters, nursing homes, assisted living facilities - will get
universal screening and universal testing," said Dawn Emerick, the director of Metro Health at a recent San Antonio City Council meeting.
"That is a new recommendation that just came out from the CDC and we are incorporating that into our plan moving forward."
Universal testing has occurred at Southeast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where the virus claimed the lives of 18 residents.
And it's underway at the Bexar County Jail, where one detention deputy and one inmate who tested positive for COVID-19 died this week.
Kenneth Wilson, the president and CEO of Haven for Hope, applauded the fact that there have been zero confirmed positive COVID-19
cases in the homeless community. In the past two months, 22 people at Haven for Hope have been tested, Wilson said. All were negative.
It's unclear exactly how many homeless people across the city have been tested for the coronavirus, but Plauche isn't surprised there
haven't been any homeless people testing positive so far. "Homeless people living on the street face a lot of sickness and I think
over time build a sort of resistance," she said
Plauche added that people living on the street may also have less exposure to the virus as they typically are not going into crowded
stores or working at indoor job sites where they would be in closer contact with others and in enclosed spaces.
Metro Health officials pointed out it also could be due to homeless service providers' proactive approach and timely response to the
pandemic. In late March, Haven for Hope stopped accepting new clients because it had reached capacity. So did all the other overnight
shelters in the San Antonio area. The shelter, the largest in the city, has room for 1,000 people to sleep in dorm rooms.
Up to 700 more can sleep in the outdoor courtyard, if the sleeping mats are lined up next to each other.
In April, Haven for Hope moved an estimated 300 people into a downtown Holiday Inn that the city rented for homeless people who are
especially vulnerable to COVID-19: those 65 or older and/or who have underlying health issues. The city also has other housing
available for those who test positive and don't need to be in the hospital but don't have a place to self-isolate. Wilson said
Haven for Hope takes clients' temperatures each day - a high temperature is one of the most common symptoms of the virus - and
refers anyone with symptoms for testing.
Officials said the city has also begun screenings at the four locations it has designated as homeless hubs: SAMMinistries,
Christian Assistance Ministries, Harvest Church and Corazon Ministries. Food, clothing, showers and hygiene kits are available at
these hubs daily. Additionally, homeless people who go there receive information about other services available.
Dawn White-Fosdick, the executive director of Christian Assistance Ministry, leads the homeless resource hub on McCullough at
Avenue E. Typically the hub serves around 100 homeless people a day, but now serves more than 200 people a day- and that's just
for food. The faith-based entity also provides clothes and hygiene kits to around 100 people a day and up to 80 will use the mobile
shower unit. While CAM usually has dozens of volunteers - most of whom are retirees -now it's down to few or none, depending
on the day. White-Fosdick said the nonprofit is relying primarily on its staff of 18. Not only does this prove to be challenging
because there's more work for fewer people to do, but also because many tasks have become labor-intensive, such as the requirement
for additional sanitizing and packaging items for individual use that previously were left in common areas.
In the early days of the pandemic, city officials saw a marked increase in calls asking about homeless services so a hotline
was set up. Homeless Connections, which helps match homeless people with services they need, can be reached by calling
210-207-1799 or by sending an email to HomelessOutreach@sanantonio.gov
Sara Cline Follow Sara on: https://www.facebook.com/sara.cline