Social distancing not an option for those experiencing homelessness

City, county officials won’t specify plans for people living on the streets

Social distancing not so much
The scene on Foremaster Lane in the homeless corridorin March. (Courtesy photo)

Despite calls from federal, state and local officials for people to practice social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many living on the street are still being condensed inside the homeless corridor, making some outreach workers worried about their health.

“My primary concern is the lack of social distancing and the lack of basic sanitation,” said Michael Swecker, the founder of the homeless outreach organization Care Complex. “I think the one thing everyone could agree about is having that many people that close together isn’t good. There has to be a better way.”

As Nevada enters its second week where non-essential businesses are shutdown and people are asked to stay home — for Nevada — those without a home don’t have a choice. On Tuesday, Gov. Steve Sisolak banned groups of ten or more from gathering in Nevada to prevent the spread of the virus, but exempted those experiencing homelessness.

In an email, the City of Las Vegas said it was following guidelines put forward by the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council when dealing with people who come into the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center, an open-air facility off Foremaster Lane that provides sleeping space for hundreds of people each night.

“The city is working to accommodate distance requirements at the Courtyard Homeless Resource Center taking into account the space that is available,” city spokesman Jace Radke said in an email. “ We are also planning on taking temperatures of those entering the Courtyard as an additional precaution. We hope to have that operational in the coming days.”

Many organizations such as National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the Center for American Progress stress the need to house unsheltered people experiencing homelessness, especially if they are showing symptoms for COVID-19. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also released recommendations for how to respond to those living on the streets during the health crisis.

“The message from the public health experts at the CDC is clear: housing, not handcuffs or forced congregate sheltering, for those experiencing homelessness is the way to best ensure we all remain safer in the face of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Eric Tars, legal director at the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty. 

If there aren’t enough housing units, the CDC said cities shouldn’t clear encampments.

“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” the CDC wrote. “This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

Other prevention measures from the CDC include ensuring nearby restroom facilities have functioning water taps with soap and tissues available 24 hours per day, and setting up portable latrines with hand-washing facilities for encampments.

“Outdoor settings may allow people to increase distance between themselves and others,” the CDC noted. “However, sleeping outdoors often does not provide protection from the environment, quick access to hygiene and sanitation facilities, or connection to healthcare.”

The CDC also recommends localities set up isolation housing for people suspected of having COVID-19. 

The City of Las Vegas and Clark County haven’t publicly put forward plans to increase shelter for those living on the streets, or identified a specific course of action if a person tests positive for the virus.

The Southern Nevada Health District said it was offering technical assistance to service providers on their procedures to minimize potential exposures to COVID-19 and has offered to review emergency plans and shelter.

“We are also working with emergency managers from the cities and the county at the Multi-Agency Coordination Center to identify locations where individuals can be housed if they need to be isolated or quarantined, including those in the unsheltered population,” said Stephanie Bethel, a spokeswoman with the health district. “Health District staff has met with the Mobile Health Collaborative and other provider organizations to answer questions and provide assistance in tracking immediate resource needs.”

When asked numerous times, neither the City of Las Vegas nor Clark County would say if there are plans to increase shelter options.

Nevada Current asked the County via email March 16, March 18, March 19 and March 23, and also in follow-up phone calls, if it plans to allocate emergency funding to house some of Southern Nevada’s unsheltered population during the health crisis. County spokespersons were not able to provide a response.

San Francisco announced it was placing some homeless individuals in vacant rooms, specifically those who test positive for the virus but don’t have a place to self isolate. Chicago is also mulling over a similar idea to use hotel rooms during the health crisis.

In Hennepin County, Minnesota, which includes Minneapolis, officials recently allocated money to also move those experiencing homelessness into hotel rooms.

With a mandatory shutdown of nonessential business, which includes hotels, tens of thousands of rooms are currently vacant.  

The Current also asked the County and the City this week about the prospect of temporarily placing those who are unsheltered in one of the thousands of available hotel rooms throughout Southern Nevada. Neither local government answered. 

The City of Reno recently opened its Downtown Events Center as a makeshift shelter, which will allow residents to be spaced six feet apart per CDC recommendations. 

“As to possibly repurposing building for use by the homeless or other emergency uses, the city is looking at our inventory and options at this time,” Radke said.

Swecker said ideas implemented by other cities are worth exploring in Southern Nevada.

In addition to local governments taking steps, Tars is hoping whatever relief legislation and stimulus packages are passed on a federal level would include additional funding for those serving homeless populations or even mandating vacant federal, state, and local surplus properties, as well as hotels and cruise line recipients of any bailouts, be made available for housing, safe parking and service distribution.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.