Charles County has partnered with multiple agencies and LifeStyles of Maryland Inc. to implement sanitation stations, food and other supplies to be distributed to the homeless community amid the coronavirus pandemic, as well as shelter for those who test positive for the virus.
The stations are equipped with portable toilets and hand washing sinks that are intended to support better hygiene and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the community. Other partnering organizations include the department of emergency services, the health department, the department of social services, the Charles County Sheriff's Office and the La Plata Police Department.
“We know that our homeless population is especially at risk of community transmission of COVID-19 and faces unique challenges to ensuring quarantine and isolation if infection occurs,” Commissioners' President Reuben B. Collins II (D) said. “That’s why the county has taken proactive measures to ensure that we are providing direct outreach and assistance to keep them healthy and house them when necessary.”
County organizations are also working to provide shelter for people that are suspected to have the virus or have tested positive and do not have a home in which to shelter, according to county government spokeswoman Donna Fuqua.
"This is a collaborative effort among our partners to make sure that we are providing services to this vulnerable population," Fuqua said. "This is to help this vulnerable population shelter in place per the CDC recommended guidelines."
Fuqua said the county has a plan in place to provide shelter in several unspecified local hotels. She said that once a person is identified exhibiting symptoms and needs to be tested, the health department will determine if the person needs medical sheltering. If LifeStyles and social services determine that the person has no home to shelter in, emergency services will coordinate sheltering and the sheriff's office will provide transportation to the shelter location.
“These strategies are in place to ensure the health, welfare, and safety of homeless individuals who are at higher risk due to their circumstances during this extraordinary time," Collins said.
Sandy Washington, executive director of LifeStyles, said that partnering organizations were planning how to serve the vulnerable and homeless population before the first case of the virus was reported in the county. Washington said LifeStyles has been using guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness where there is a community spread of the virus.
Washington said the recommendation was not to upset homeless encampments, but to provide sanitation centers to mitigate the spread of the virus. She said the LifeStyles street outreach team planned the best locations for eight or more individuals to set up the stations, but this proved to be more difficult than anticipated due to needing approval of property owners.
"Even in this climate, there are many that stereotype those who are homeless. Most times, it is not in a positive way," Washington said. "Unfortunately, they only see folks who are panhandling or dealing with addictions, but those dealing with addictions and mental health disorders need assistance as well."
Washington said two sanitation stations, one in La Plata and one in Waldorf, are currently active with three more planned if property owners allow it. She said a homeless alert system has been put in place that sends out a blast text to individuals and groups providing information about when and where blankets, solar showers, personal protection equipment, toiletries and water will be available.
Washington said LifeStyles will provide communications to people sleeping outside in the appropriate language and identify influential people in the community who can accurately communicate hygiene measures to others. She said the county's non-congregate shelter plan required participation from all groups involved.
"Each of us play a role from the time of referral until the person is released from isolation/quarantine," Washington said. "For the security of the individual and all concerned, we are not disclosing isolation locations."
Washington credited multiple businesses and organizations, specifically End Hunger in Charles County, Barnes Builders, the La Plata Rotary Club and the Southern Maryland Business Center, for providing food and additional supplies to the needy population amid the pandemic.
"I know may don't see the need, but there are many who need food and other supplies," Washington said. "Anything people can do to keep this supply chain going will be helpful."
Washington said that if community residents do not want to shop for supplies that will be donated, providing financial donations will be helpful to fill the current gaps LifeStyles and other organizations are facing. She said 72 households in the county currently do not have running water, and keeping water going to them is critical at this time.
Fuqua said that in addition to partnering organizations, the housing authority division has contacted additional homeless service providers to encourage using the authority's funds for homeless facilities to increase capacity in shelters and provide permanent stable housing for eligible shelter residents. She said the authority is processing requests from people enrolled in the housing choice voucher program for changes in payments for those who have seen reductions in income or loss of employment.
The department of community services has shared information with landlords and tenants helping explain housing implications and the temporary suspension of eviction filings as noted in the federal CARES Act. Fuqua said families have also been given suggestions on how to properly manage limited financial resources during the pandemic.
For residents aiming to help the less fortunate, Fuqua suggested reaching out directly to churches and community organizations to ask if they are in need of volunteers. She also suggested offering to pick up groceries for someone who may not be able to do their own shopping.
"Look out for neighbors, family, and friends with acts of kindness and generosity," Fuqua said. "Make a meal or put together a basket of supplies and non-perishable groceries to drop off for a family in need or donate it to a local homeless shelter."