It was a busy day at the Navigation Center on Friday, when a sudden bout of cold weather and sleet drew Vancouver’s population of unhoused people to the day shelter.
It was the busiest day in a while, staff at the front desk confirmed. For many of the clients, access to urgent needs — namely, warmth and a roof — outweighs the risks of ignoring social distancing guidelines recommended by federal and local health officials to slow the spread of COVID-19.
After all, recommendations like “stock your pantry” and “quarantine at home” are a lot harder to follow when someone doesn’t have a pantry or a home.
“Not everybody has a self-quarantine option,” said Felicia Parkinson, who was one of many unhoused people at the Navigation Center on Friday afternoon. She’s currently living out of her car.
“They have no home; there’s nowhere to go for quarantine,” Parkinson said.
She’s taking her own precautions, like washing her hands more frequently and swapping elbow bumps for handshakes and hugs. A self-proclaimed “social butterfly,” she says she’s been trying to keep more to herself.
But when you live out of your car, avoiding crowds is effectively impossible. Parkinson frequents the Share Hot Meal program for breakfast, lunch and dinner (the local homelessness nonprofit announced Friday that it would be trading its traditional hot meals for brown-bag meals, effective today).
According to Parkinson, people are talking about the virus, but it’s not the most urgent topic of concern among visitors who frequent the Navigation Center. It’s more of a curiosity.
“They say, ‘How long do you think it’s going to be before it’s really rampant here?’ ” Parkinson said. “I’m not really that afraid of it.”
Wash hands, cover coughs
The Navigation Center has made a few material shifts in response to COVID-19, a novel infectious disease that is part of the coronavirus family. Staff have provided new stations with hand sanitizer and sterilizing wipes, and posted reminders around the room detailing preventative hygiene measures like hand-washing and covering coughs and sneezes.
“While there are currently no confirmed cases locally involving the homeless population, Navigation Center staff are taking the threat of COVID-19 seriously,” said Carol Bua, the city of Vancouver’s head of communications.
The center is directing staff and volunteers to stay home if they’re sick and providing masks to visitors who are coughing or show other symptoms of illness, Bua said. The center has also increased the cleaning of frequently touched surfaces throughout the day, as well as nightly disinfecting of the entire facility by a janitorial service.
“We are in close contact with Clark County Public Health to make sure we are following all currently recommended protocols,” Bua wrote in an email. “We have also been in touch with other shelter providers in Clark County and Multnomah County to share strategies to minimize the spread of communicable disease and address the unique challenges inherent in operating facilities where people congregate.”
Staff may decide to increase social distancing options by removing or rearranging furniture, Bua said. Current configurations include chairs packed closely around circular tables, as well as rows of seats around the perimeter of the room and facing the television.
Other public areas that cater to people without homes, like FISH Westside Food Pantry of Vancouver, have already taken social-distancing measures like spacing chairs 3 feet apart and controlling the number of people allowed in the building at any given time.
The Navigation Center was already in a period of flux when the coronavirus outbreak started to spread.
Share, which had operated the center since it opened in November 2018, pulled out in February. The Navigation Center has been left without a permanent operator and is currently being managed by Parks and Recreation staff.
Additionally, the city’s first homeless resources manager, Jackie St. Louis, left his post on Feb. 14. Vancouver leaders are actively searching for his replacement, as well as a new permanent operator.
The committee handling the request for proposals from potential operators, Bua said, “is still having discussions.”
Health care limitations
A representative from Sea Mar, a community health clinic that interacts with clients at the Navigation Center, said the group is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines when determining how to proceed when someone shows symptoms of coronavirus. Nobody at the center has so far tested positive for COVID-19.
“We provide them with information on how to access their primary care provider, if they have one. We can direct them to testing sites in Vancouver as well,” said Vice President of Medical Operations Harshiem Ross.
The top three recommendations on the CDC’s website for people suspected to have coronavirus: stay home, avoid public areas and avoid public transportation.
All of those recommendations are complicated by homelessness.
“There’s no place to house them, unfortunately,” Ross added. “When we talk about the CDC guidelines and what we do, a lot of those recommendations are just us directing them to primary care or emergency care.”