Cincinnati, OH — There are many implications to yesterday's unprecedented action by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton ordering Ohioans to stay in their homes unless absolutely necessary.
That "stay at home" order, designed to try and slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, carves out a number of exceptions — you can leave your home to go to the grocery or to get exercise, for instance. But what if you don't have a home in the first place?
On the surface, Acton's order is pretty straightforward when it comes to this point.
"Individuals experiencing homelessness are exempt from this order," Acton wrote on page one of her 23-page mandate, "but are strongly urged to obtain shelter, and governmental and other entities are strongly urged to make such shelter available as soon as possible and to the maximum extent practicable."
Some advocates for those experiencing homelessness, however, say those shelters could become the site of contagion themselves.
In a letter sent late last week, 25 Cincinnati social service organizations including the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, Strategies to End Homelessness, Shelterhouse, YWCA of Greater Cincinnati and others asked the City of Cincinnati to help find ways of providing as many as 1,000 individual units of emergency housing in hotels, college dorms and vacant apartment buildings for the city's homeless population.
The city has already taken some steps to address COVID-19's threat to people experiencing homelessness, drawing up a plan to house those exhibiting possible symptoms of COVID-19 in Cincinnati Recreation Centers. Mayor John Cranley and other city officials unveiled that plan last week. The first of those centers will be at the Over-the-Rhine Community Center.
City Manager Patrick Duhaney says planning began about two weeks ago to aid shelters that may not have the capacity to follow social distancing and isolation or quarantine recommendations.
"Most of the shelters we found are able to do that," he said. "There are a few that aren't, and this is what we opened up the OTR center for."
That will address part of the risk of contagion, officials and advocates say. But a person can carry and transmit the virus for as long as a week without showing symptoms — and some people with it won't show symptoms at all.
In the close quarters of some of the city's shelters and halfway houses — and in the cramped houses and apartments hosting people doubled up couch-surfing to avoid being on the streets — that could be very dangerous, advocates say.
A letter to the city from the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition praises the work the city has done so far, but says it believes the recreation center conversions will not be enough. The letter estimates that roughly 1,800 people in the city — shelter and halfway house residents and staff — could be at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 due to the nature of those facilities.
Some of those residents, including those in Shelterhouse's women's shelters, have already been provided individual rooms, the letter says. But others are still at high risk.
"Within our family shelters, single adult shelters, youth shelters and congregant transitional and halfway housing, it is impossible for our approximately 1,800 people to stay six feet apart," the letter reads. "In nearly all cases, this is not even possible when sleeping. Further, we all have shared restrooms and eating facilities."
"Simply put, our single adults and families with children in shelter and congregant transitional and halfway housing, cannot come close to practicing social distancing," the letter continues. "Therefore, given our understanding of COVID-19, if one person in one of our shelters has COVID-19, all people living and working there have possibly been exposed and are at risk. If these known and unknown contacts convert, they in turn will have exposed everyone else they have come into contact with inside and outside of the shelter."
It's unclear what will happen next. Last week, City Manager Duhaney indicated the city is looking into possibly taking other measures to address the risks those experiencing homelessness face from COVID-19, including repurposing municipal buildings to serve as temporary shelters.
The coalition is asking for city, state and federal funds to provide the units. Whenever possible, the letter states, those units should have private bathrooms and cooking facilities. The group has also reached out to universities, hotels and apartment building owners for help.
"We believe that all the steps we have already undertaken in collaboration with the City, as described at the start of this letter are necessary, important and must continue," the letter reads. "However, we know we must do more to protect people in Cincinnati and Hamilton County without homes and our broader community. We know the task of finding 1,000 individual rooms and ensuring access to food, will not be easy, but necessary based on this threat."