Coronavirus concerns spread among homeless New Yorkers
New York City homeless service agencies have begun issuing basic guidance about the coronavirus to nonprofit providers, but with uncertainty and false reports spreading far faster than the actual illness, accurate information often fails to reach the New Yorkers who actually live in shelters.
Homeless New Yorkers, their advocates and shelter staff say the dissemination of information varies depending on the individual provider, and many shelters have failed to adequately address residents’ practical concerns.
“Everybody’s worried. It’s all over the news, but they’re not saying anything,” said Sean Burt, of the Jamaica family shelter where lives with his son.
Picture the Homeless community organizer Nikita Price said he has encountered misplaced fears, wacky home remedies and flat out incorrect information while talking about the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, with homeless New Yorkers. One person, for example, swore that Lysol could kill all germs and protect people from the coronavirus, he said.
“I think people right now are disseminating misinformation. Nobody really knows and this breeds misinformation,” Price said. “People are talking antiquated methods and home remedies for dealing with things.”
Price said it was vital that the city get providers on the same page about how to ease fears and provide constructive guidance.
“This is a population that’s probably going to be neglected in a lot of the conversations around this,” he said. “Everyone needs to be put on notice about this.”
Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks, who oversees the Department of Homeless Services, has so far sent at least one email to shelter providers about precautions for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“Currently, the risk for the novel Coronavirus in New York City remains low, but our preparedness for the outbreak is high,” Banks wrote in an email to shelter providers Wednesday afternoon that was forwarded to the Eagle. “The situation is fluid and may change, therefore preparation is key.”
The message directs recipients to a two-page Health Department fact sheet about the illness, a document that urges New Yorkers to wash their hands and cough into their sleeves — the same advice for avoiding most common airborne illnesses, including the flu. The fact sheet also attempts to alleviate concerns about traveling on public transit or gathering in groups.
“Protecting the health, wellbeing, and safety of those we serve is our number one priority,” DSS spokesperson Isaac McGinn said. “In the case of COVID-19, as the city has emphasized, the risk of infection for New Yorkers remains low. We continue to work in lock-step with our colleagues at the Department of Health and Health and Hospitals as the City ensures all New Yorkers have the information they need to stay safe, identify symptoms, speak up and seek care.”
A more thorough document distributed by the city Health Department provides “interim COVID-19 guidance for congregate settings,” including shelters. The illness, which affects the lungs, has spread in certain confined spaces, including cruise ships and nursing homes, and prompted concerns about how other settings, like jails, can best address the illness.
Shelters are another type of shared space where people have limited control over their environments.
Victoria R., a mother of two who lives in a central Queens family shelter, said staff posted a page of information at the entrance to the building, but they have not provided cleaning materials to help families protect themselves against infectious diseases.
“There’s a memo out front that says ‘Coronavirus is going around, this is what you need to do,’” said Victoria, who asked not to use her full name because she feared retaliation by staff.
“They’re not willing to help out families with anything,” she added. “They got a shipment of hand sanitizer, Lysol, cleaning tissues, wipes, but they didn’t give them out.”
Victoria said she makes her children wash their hands as soon as they enter the home, and she washes and sprays their clothes with a disinfectant in the shower. She said the family also uses a home-remedy garlic sanitizer, and she soaked their doormat with a British brand of detergent called Dettol that is common in her native Guyana.
“I have two little ones and they are crazy when it comes to germs and I have to be on top of my game,” she said.
One nonprofit administrator who oversees a number of shelter sites said staff are careful about addressing issues like disease outbreaks in a way that does not stoke unnecessary fear.
DHS had not yet sent a directive to providers about how to address the coronavirus when the administrator spoke with the Eagle Tuesday, but she said she had begun instructing staff to educate shelter residents about proper hygiene in English and Spanish, and to introduce the topic to children during family groups.
“We don’t want to send anyone into panic or alarm them,” she said. “However, we do want to take caution.”
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