Unsheltered Homelessness Is on the Rise in San Antonio. What Does That Mean for COVID-19 Infections?

click to enlarge KATIE HENNESSEY
Katie Hennessey
With COVID-19 still spreading in San Antonio, some worry the city’s growing number of unsheltered homeless people are at particularly high risk for contracting the disease.

A recent analysis of the annual Point-in-Time Count, a one-night snapshot of the city’s homeless, revealed an 8% increase in the unsheltered population over the past 10 years. Unsheltered individuals are those who, for a variety of reasons, sleep under bridges and in encampments rather than shelters such as Haven for Hope.

To date, there have been no confirmed reports of COVID-19 among San Antonio’s unsheltered. Even so, city officials worry that without access to adequate health care and hygiene, the group could be especially vulnerable during the pandemic. To that end, the Department of Human Services has partnered with multiple agencies to set up resource hubs that provide food, showers and sanitation supplies to those on the streets.

But while the city works to expand its safety net for the unsheltered, homeless service providers say the jury is still out on whether living on the streets makes people more or less susceptible to the novel coronavirus.

Motherly Advice

To many of the homeless clients she serves, Dianne Talbert, executive director of Church Under the Bridge, is known simply as “Mom.”

When most of society retreated indoors to mitigate exposure to the coronavirus, Talbert did the opposite, ramping up her organization’s dinner service from three nights a week to seven. Since then, she’s served home-cooked meals to more than 200 people nightly at her East Side hub.

“There’s a lot of food insecurity out there right now,” Talbert told the Current.
While waiting in line for a recent dinner service, CUB guests masked up and stood on designated markers on the sidewalk. They knew the drill, and they also knew about the coronavirus.

Several times at dinner, a homeless guest called out “Mom” to ask Talbert for a new mask or a hygiene kit for the road. One homeless man theorized about the root cause of the pandemic, saying it stemmed from overpopulation and exploited resources.

Talbert said it’s hard to generalize about the COVID-19 risks faced by the people she serves.

“Many of [the homeless] have immune systems that are extremely compromised already, a lot of them have cancer, they’re diabetic — those guys are at risk,” she said.

On the other hand, life on the streets may make some less vulnerable to infection.

“They live in the elements,” she added. “Their resistance is a lot better than ours.”

Dwindling Resources

While it’s unclear how much more infection risk the unsheltered face during the pandemic, resource providers say the crisis has cut deeply into the resources they can access.

“There was a plethora of ways to care for yourself on the street, and now there isn’t,” said Dawn White-Fosdick, president of Christian Assistance Ministries (CAM).

CAM is a resource hub serving downtown-area homeless with meals, clothing, hygiene items and showers. It responded to COVID-19 with increased services out of concern that other options for unsheltered residents were drying up.
“Before coronavirus, if you didn’t get something from us, you had somewhere else to go,” White-Fosdick explained.

Prior to the citywide shutdown, unsheltered homeless used downtown retail spaces to wash up in a bathroom, seek free food or collect a couple dollars. Church doors were also open. All of that added up.

“Churches would put out clothing, offer a free meal, have showers available,” White-Fosdick said. “We were able to manage by just filling in the gap.”
But now White-Fosdick fears the lack of resources is taking a toll on the physical health of San Antonio’s unsheltered population. Before the crisis, 25 to 50 people sought showers at CAM daily. The number now ranges between 50 to 80.

“There is an overwhelming volume and distress in the situation we hadn’t seen before,” she said. “I can see a difference. They are dirtier because they’re not able to take care of things the way they were doing before. Even something like clothing becomes a health care issue.”

Aging on the Street

Of San Antonio’s 2,932 homeless citizens, 27% are over the age of 50, according to the most recent Point-in-Time data. That age demographic is 93% more likely to die if it contracts COVID-19, according to the Metropolitan Health District.

Catholic Worker House operates the only food hub specifically serving the Alamo City’s 50-plus homeless population. After noticing that average age of its guests was 54, CWH Director Dr. Chris Plauche last year switched its focus strictly to seniors.

While some worry the homeless population faces higher infection risks due to scarce health resources and compromised immune systems, Plauche says the group has a built-in resiliency.

“It could be that people who are older and homeless for a long time, they have built up their immune system,” Plauche said.

Beyond that, the life of the homeless is inherently socially distanced and removed from mainstream society, she added. But she does allow a caveat.
“Perhaps if you are older and you are newly homeless, there’s more concern.”
As the pandemic plays out, only time may tell whether the resiliency of San Antonio’s unsheltered homeless will continue to keep them safe.

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