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Local organizations work to aid people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic

National study predicts 91 COVID-19 infections among Whatcom County homeless community

The Lighthouse Mission Drop-in Center on Holly Street in February 2020. The Mission has temporarily relocated to Bellingham High School to increase its capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic. // Photo by Ella Banken

By Hailee Wickersham

On April 3, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published a study that predicts nearly 100 people in Whatcom County experiencing homelessness will contract COVID-19. 

According to the Whatcom County Council Point-In-Time Count and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, Whatcom County made up 4.2% of the 13% of people who were homeless and unsheltered in Washington.

In relation to other states, Washington ranks 5th in the nation for the highest population of people experiencing homelessness after New York, Hawaii, California, and Oregon according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness as “an individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” From this definition, the department estimated roughly 0.2% or 568,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the U.S in 2019.

With the inadequate access to hygiene and sanitation products that people without shelter experience, a concern has been raised for those persons during the pandemic.

Dennis Culhane, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has predicted the effects of COVID-19 on those experiencing homelessness in the U.S. His research found that 21,295 people in the U.S. experiencing homelessness could require hospitalization upon contracting the virus at peak infection time

Data from the Institute for Health and Metrics Evaluations predicted that Washington’s peak infection time happened on April 6. 

According to the study, researchers predict 91 COVID-19 infections within Whatcom County’s homeless community.

The risks of exposure to the virus increase for those who are without a home. People who are homeless are more exposed to “unhealthful conditions, weather conditions, pollution, injuries, as well as crowded shelters and factors such as age and underlying health risks,” Culhane said. 

The study also estimates an additional 400,000 beds are needed in adult homeless shelter facilities to manage the COVID-19 pandemic for the current estimated population of people without homes.

PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center is the largest hospital in Whatcom County. It is able to accommodate 253 beds, according to its website.

According to the study, the U.S. will experience a 50% reduction of available beds in existing shelter facilities to accommodate current CDC guidelines that require a 100-square-feet space per bed. 

In addition to this, the study’s data estimates that adult homeless shelters in Whatcom County will need an additional 187 beds. 

The Lighthouse Mission Ministries, the sole low-barrier 24-hour homeless shelter to house people experiencing homelessness in Bellingham, has temporarily relocated to Bellingham High School to increase its capacity and comply with the CDC guidelines, according to Executive Director Hans Erchinger-Davis. 

Since relocating to the high school, Lighthouse has been able to effectively enforce social distancing due to the increase in added space. At its drop-in shelter location on State Street, Lighthouse had a capacity of 160 individuals. 

“We have had zero cases so far out of the about 282 people we are caring for on a 24-hour basis,” Erchinger-Davis said. 

Lighthouse has been working to minimize exposure to the virus within its locations. The organization has implemented routine sanitizing of sleeping mats and provides full personal protective equipment to their staff, Erchinger-Davis said. 

In addition, the temporary location has on-site paramedics staffed daily through Whatcom County’s GRACE (Ground-Level Response and Coordinated Engagement). 

The Whatcom County Opportunity Council has also been working to provide a panel of essential resources to those experiencing poverty such as meal distribution, rent, utilities and housing assistance. 

Since the beginning of the month, the Opportunity Council has reportedly seen an increase in the people using their housing assistance services. 

Michael Parker, the Opportunity Council department director for the Whatcom County Homeless Service Center, said they have implemented remote working for their staff as well as providing personal protective equipment in their 24-hour locations. 

“Although there’s an eviction moratorium, that does not mean that people are not struggling to pay. Not all of those folks are going to be helped by unemployment security or stimulus checks,” Parker said. 

With the lack of access to healthful conditions that unsheltered people experience, the council is working to keep the same level of resources that were available pre-pandemic. 

“Things are extremely dire for those that are at the margins of homelessness or are unsheltered because the access to services that were already there is getting harder,” Parker said. 

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