Stacey holds Simba and stands next to a portable wash station; March 15, 2020 Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

As the number of new coronavirus infections in Illinois continues to grow, Chicago has finally caught up with testing at some of the city’s homeless shelters. Results shared by the Chicago Department of Public Health at the end of last week showed that among 1,153 clients and staff tested at 14 shelters, 302 people were positive for COVID-19. However, as of May 7, the department couldn’t confirm if anyone has died from the disease.

The city has 58 emergency homeless shelters according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and between 5,000 and 6,000 people without a permanent place to live stay in shelters or on the streets. While the city has set up handwashing stations and portable toilets at homeless encampments, those living on the streets have struggled to find food and medical care since the statewide lockdown began on March 21. Meanwhile, advocates have been concerned about the spread of the virus in “congregate” shelter settings for weeks.

According to Quenjana Adams, a spokeswoman for the Department of Family and Support Services, which oversees homelessness prevention programs, the city has put in place protocols to ramp up testing at homeless shelters. Shelters are still advised to direct clients with severe symptoms to hospitals and to try to isolate clients with mild symptoms. Adams wrote in an e-mail that the city can help shelters if they’re struggling to isolate symptomatic clients, but that “shelter operators have been responsive and proactive in setting aside space within their facilities for isolation. Very few has [sic] notified the department of barriers in this area.”

If there’s a confirmed positive case of COVID-19 among clients or staff at a shelter, CDPH has been deploying medical workers from UI Health and Rush Medical Center to test everyone at the facility within three to five days. Test results come back within a day or two. If a shelter can’t provide on-site isolation space for someone who’s tested positive but has mild symptoms, a limited number of hotel rooms have been set aside to help with quarantine. Going forward, Adams added, CDPH is planning to retest everyone at the 14 facilities and proactively test at other shelters. DFSS wouldn’t say which shelters have had the blanket testing so far.

Still, advocates are concerned that the city’s strategy for handling the virus outbreak in homeless shelters isn’t sufficient and has been too slow. The response is “not adequate,” said Julie Dworkin, policy director at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “I think there’s still a lot of holes, the biggest one being: what is the time frame for having testing in every shelter and moving out people who are vulnerable?” The city has not been able to provide one thus far.

Dworkin also said that she’d heard anecdotal information about at least a couple of staffers at local shelters dying from COVID-19 and was surprised the city couldn’t provide any answers about the number of deaths.

“The city has been improving its response to outbreaks in shelters, but there is still a long way to go before we can truly keep people experiencing homelessness safe from the virus,” Dworkin said. “There is not sufficient capacity right now to quickly address cases in shelters. We need to be able to respond immediately when a symptomatic person is identified, to move that person out while awaiting test results, and to be able to immediately test everyone in the facility.”

She added that nearly two months into the pandemic “there is no excuse for not having developed a proactive approach to getting high-risk people out of congregate settings.” Meanwhile, Dworkin said, shelters aren’t admitting people who might show up at their doors with COVID-19 symptoms until they get tested and the virus is ruled out, leaving those dealing with a combination of illness and homelessness more vulnerable than ever.   v