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Hotels And Handwashing Stations: How New Orleans Is Helping The Homeless In A Pandemic

Brian Everson
People experiencing homelessness camp under an overpass in New Orleans.

It's hard to stay home and socially isolate, but it's even harder if you don't have a home.

The population of homeless people in New Orleans has hovered around 750 for the past month, according to UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit offering housing services in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes. Now the city has provided hotel rooms for some of them.

The city started busing people without homes to the Hilton Garden Inn on Gravier Street on Thursday, UNITY Executive Director Martha Kegel said.

Kegel applauded the city and state for the effort.

“If there’s an epidemic in a homeless camp it impacts each and every one of us, so this was just vital to the whole community,” she said.

Neither the city nor the state responded to repeated requests for comment about the program, regarding who is eligible, how long they will be allowed to stay at the Hilton, or how many rooms will be available. Kegel says at least 175 people got rooms.

Last week, the city set up hand-washing stations and toilets in the two major homeless encampments under the Claiborne overpass and under I-90 ramp at Magazine and Calliope streets. But Kegel says those measures weren’t enough to keep people safe - the toilets were still being shared and people needed private rooms in which to isolate.

A new study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness finds that people experiencing homelessness are three times as likely to die from COVID-19. They are often older, have pre-existing medical conditions, and lack access to health care.

Kenny has been without a home off and on for about 20 years. He says his main strategy has been to try to stay clean.

“You’ve got to be careful out here and just hope you don’t come in contact with it,” he said.

The city shutdown itself has been hard on people experiencing homelessness, who are at an even greater risk of going hungry as meal services are canceled, opportunities to panhandle are lessened, and many stores are closed.

Some social services organizations have scaled back their work, encouraging people to leave shelters, which are dangerous because so many people stay there together, sharing rooms and bunk beds. Other groups, like Community Kitchen, which serves lunch at Duncan Plaza on Tuesdays, have taken safety precautions but continue to serve this vulnerable population.

Aimee Granier is part of an ad-hoc group of friends called The Breakfast Club that has been cooking breakfast and serving it for free every single Sunday for six years at the neutral ground on North Robertson and Franklin. She says they are continuing to serve, but breakfasts are being packaged to-go, and volunteers are wearing gloves and masks.

She not only worries about folks being exposed to COVID-19, but also that it will be harder for people with serious health issues and no insurance to get help.

“We have some folks who regularly have seizures due to alcohol withdrawals, and other conditions, and they really rely on emergency care," Granier said, "and I worry that with the emergency rooms and care being overtaxed right now that they may not have access to that care in the same way that they used to.”

The nonprofit clinic Crescent Care on Elysian Fields continues to offer services for free.

CEO Noel Twilbeck said they quickly set up a screening process for COVID-19. But they desperately need more supplies.

“I believe this pandemic just magnifies how ill equipped we are to address the resource-end of public health,” she said.

So far Crescent Care has tested nearly 200 people. Ten have tested positive.

Kegel said they hope providing shelter at the Hilton will slow the spread of COVID-19 among this vulnerable population.

It's not the first time the city has done this. Kegel said after Hurricane Katrina, nearly 500 people were offered hotel rooms.

It's not clear how long they will be allowed to stay in the Hilton.

Grainer said that as communities across the world are asked to stay home, avoid close contact, and wash their hands frequently, “We fail to acknowledge that reliable access to the basic necessities required to follow such recommendations — shelter, privacy, clean water, soap and either preventative or responsive healthcare — are luxuries many in our community do not have.”

Twillbeck said this pandemic, and the lack of adequate services for the homeless, points to the need for systemic change.

“We absolutely have to do better as a community,” he said.

“We need fixes, we need to push to make sure we have better systems in place, and access to health care is crucial. (The healthcare system) was not in a good place before this pandemic for our vulnerable communities. But it's certainly showing at this point in time that it's less than optimal.”

You can help by donating to Second Harvest Food Bank.

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Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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