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Haven For Hope In San Antonio Implements New Policies After Washington Post Article Sounds Alarms

With limited or no access to everyday hygiene products or information on how to protect themselves from contagion, people experiencing homelessness are at a high risk for contracting COVID-19.
The Washington Post
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With limited or no access to everyday hygiene products or information on how to protect themselves from contagion, people experiencing homelessness are at a high risk for contracting COVID-19.

Experts say San Antonio’s Haven For Hope campus has taken steps to implement social distancing measures over the past week. This comes after a Washington Post article that documented potentially unsafe conditions at the shelter, which houses more than 15,000 people experiencing homelessness.

The South Alamo Regional Alliance For The Homeless (SARAH) is a research-driven organization that advises and distributes funds to other organizations, but does not provide direct services to people experiencing homelessness. When SARAH officials saw the photos and descriptions of conditions inside the shelter published by the Post, they were alarmed. 

Brenda Mascorro is the executive director of SARAH. 

“We had the same reactions when we read the Washington Post article and saw those photos,” she said. “And so we quickly made sure that we asked the questions about the guidelines — if they were being followed.”

Those guidelines — from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Metro Health in San Antonio — call for social distancing measures of 6 feet, among other best practices. 

Mascorro said she is now confident that the Haven For Hope campus has implemented those measures. 

“The best folks to be able to answer those questions are the people that are on location,” she said. “From our phone calls and from the information provided to us, they're trying their absolute hardest to follow the protocols.”

Executives with Haven For Hope were not available for an interview, but, in a written statement, said “Our staff is working diligently to do everything we can to protect our clients and staff from the COVID pandemic.”

Monica Garcia, the manager of outreach at the San Antonio homeless shelter Haven For Hope, checks on a man living under an overpass in the city.
Credit THE WASHINGTON POST
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Monica Garcia, the manager of outreach at the San Antonio homeless shelter Haven For Hope, checks on a man living under an overpass in the city.

Worst Case Scenario

Hannah Dreier — the national reporter for the Washington Post who wrote the story — followed a Haven For Hope outreach worker throughout her work in the field and at the shelter. Dreier spoke with TPR’s Fronteras

She said the spread of coronavirus at the shelter would have major fallout for the city’s entire public health system.

“Because they're already so vulnerable to respiratory infections, an outbreak of COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness could really break the hospital system,” she said. “That could be what pushes ICUs over capacity.” 

Katie Vela, the director of operations for SARAH, said San Antonio is taking steps to prevent a worst-case scenario in which COVID-19 overwhelms shelters and, shortly thereafter, hospitals. 

“That worst case scenario is not going to play out in San Antonio,” she said. “Because worst case scenario would be that there's no planning, there's no screening, there's no communication across agencies to learn from each other.”

Vela and Mascorro said they and other agencies are often up until 1 a.m., working on implementing new guidance and best practices with agencies across the region.

Remaining Options

Earlier this week, Haven For Hope began sending people to an overflow facility at an elementary school. Vela said there are more options like that on the table. 

“So, the Emergency Operations Center has a list of options basically for overflow, for isolation, if those resources are needed,” she said. 

The state government is currently pointing to Fort Worth as an example of best practices for protecting its homeless population, according to Mascorro. 

“They're ahead of the game on providing different locations with their civic center and so on and so forth,” she said. “So, we're striving for that.”  

Psychological Toll

Jelynne LeBlanc Burley is the president and CEO of the Center For Healthcare Services, which operates a facility at Haven For Hope. The Center For Healthcare Services serves about 40,000 patients at more than 35 facilities annually. 

Burley said the spread of the coronavirus has taken a psychological toll on the community. There is increased demand at the crisis center, which serves people experiencing psychotic episodes. 

“Many of our patients do have chronic conditions such as diabetes. That is very common here in San Antonio overall,” she said. “And so our patient profile looks a lot like the community here in San Antonio. They just also happen to have behavioral health and or substance use needs, and that's what we treat.”

Other organizations, like CentroMed, also provide healthcare at Haven For Hope. Delma Ochoa is CentroMed’s Director of Homeless Services. 

The clinics, which usually have an open-door policy, are now screening patients for travel history and COVID-19 symptoms, and limiting the numbers in the waiting room to allow for social distancing. 

“Right now, that's been one of the biggest differences that our patients are having to deal with,” she said. “Because we've always had that welcoming, open-door process, and this has really stifled our ability — not even stifled, this has stopped our ability to provide that kind of environment.”

CentroMed Worker Contracts COVID-19

Two of CentroMed’s clinics were closed after a healthcare provider tested positive for COVID-19. The provider worked two shifts and came into contact with about 40 patients. 

Ana Maria Garza Cortez, the VP of Development and Marketing for CentroMed, said the provider was asymptomatic and was only tested because a family member caught COVID-19. 

“(San Antonio Metro Health) have been reviewing those patients, and they seem to be asymptomatic,” she said. “Nobody has experienced any concerns that we should be aware of.”

There are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among people experiencing homeslessness in San Antonio. 

But with no clear end to the global pandemic in sight, the demand for safe housing is likely to remain elevated for some time, as is the need to prevent an outbreak among the population at Haven For Hope and other shelters. 

Dominic Anthony can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony.