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Social Distancing, Social Responsibility and NYC Relief

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Josiah Haken (left) prays with a man during a NYC Relief outreach.

By Josiah Haken, VP of Outreach at NYC Relief

The best advice right now to deal with COVID-19, also known as the Novel Coronavirus, can be summed up in two words: “stay home.” I don’t know about your school district, but my kids were sent home from school today with packets of work to chip away at over the next few weeks while we practice the other two words that will surely become synonymous with 2020: “social distancing.”

My question is simply this: how do those of us with more than we need practice social distancing and social responsibility at the same time?

The truth is that working from home is only possible for those of us with the luxury to do so. What about those of us with jobs in the service industry? What about people who work in construction or maintenance? Not to mention doctors, nurses, medical technicians, and every self-employed American out there! Or even more relevant for this discussion, what about those of us with no homes at all?

For ten years, I’ve worked for a nonprofit called New York City Relief, which ministers to homeless New Yorkers. We provide a meal, new Bombas socks, hygiene supplies, and most importantly, we connect people to the things they need like housing applications, SNAP benefits, and a lot more. We believe that each person we serve has intrinsic value and unsurpassable worth. They are not freeloaders. They are survivors. They are living each day with more resolve and dignity than most of us could ever imagine. Like Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, likes to say, “we should stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, not in judgement at how they carry it.”

And during this worldwide pandemic, we must remember that we don’t have to practice social distancing, we get to practice social distancing. 58,172 men, women, and children slept in a Department of Homeless Services shelter last night. That doesn’t include the vast number of men and women sleeping in Penn Station, Port Authority, Grand Central, the subways and sidewalks. The most recent estimate from HUD was that in 2019 there were approximately 78,604 people experiencing homelessness in NYC. That’s 78,604 people who can’t work from home; 78,604 people who can’t stay inside; and 78,604 people who are forced by circumstance to exposure and risk.

I reached out to a friend of mine who works with one of the biggest outreach programs in NYC to ask if there was any protocol in place for our homeless neighbors who have symptoms that could be Coronavirus related. That is, what do we do if one of our guests has a fever or a dry cough? Where can they go? How can they self-protect? The response was that at this point, we are simply sending them to the closest emergency room or urgent care. We can’t send them home. We can’t tell them to self-quarantine.

Another problem is that, as a general rule, homeless folks are simply more likely to get sick anyway and their immune systems are likely already weakened. This means that they are already vulnerable. One article in 2008 from the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council found that homeless people are three to six times more likely to become ill than those of us who are housed.

So that begs the question, should we continue to serve at all, and if so, how? 

As an organization we have decided that, while the risks are high, and the long term consequences are largely unknown, people still need to eat. We have experienced mass cancelations from volunteers and we are deeply concerned about our ability to afford to buy all the supplies we need to fill the gaps of closures and cancelations (not to mention keeping our outreaches supplied with the latest drug of choice: hand sanitizer). Nevertheless, we persist.

We are making all of our volunteers (who don’t cancel) wear gloves at all times and we are asking them to change them every fifteen minutes. We are adding hand washing stations at every location, we are wiping down all surfaces every half hour, and we are setting up tables and chairs under canopies outside that spread people out as much as possible. We are also putting up signs about personal space and refusing to shake hands or hug anyone (which for our team is probably the hardest part). We are hopeful to bring in nurses or nursing students who will be equipped with forehead thermometers in order to check anyone we serve for a fever so that we can send them directly to the ER if need be.

The truth is that we have an obligation to practice social distancing and social responsibility. One of our guests who came by our outreach today exclaimed, “Great! You’re open!” Lots of places that normally serve our homeless neighbors are going to trim back (and for good reason). But for those of us who are healthy and willing to serve, there are lots of people who could use a smile and a wave. There are lots of people who could use a hot meal and a new pair of socks.

We are determined to keep showing up, but we need your help!

If you live in the NYC area and you are healthy enough to serve, please consider joining us! Email volunteer@newyorkcityrelief.org to sign up, or you can go to newyorkcityrelief.org/volunteer to learn more about our volunteer opportunities. Maybe you are connected to the hand sanitizer drug trade and you would like to help us by donating some of your supply. Please email us at info@newyorkcityrelief.org and write in the subject line “Hand Sanitizer Donation.” The other thing we need is money. Staffing these outreaches is expensive, and we need help paying for food, transportation, supplies, and gloves (lots and lots of gloves). Please consider donating by going to newyorkcityrelief.org/donate and sending in a tax deductible gift today!