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Helping the homeless combat COVID-19

Tucson (Sierra Vista) KOLD logo Tucson (Sierra Vista) KOLD 4/2/2020 Hannah Tiede
a person standing in front of a tree: Helping the homeless combat COVID-19 © Provided by Tucson (Sierra Vista) KOLD Helping the homeless combat COVID-19

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - An already vulnerable population is feeling the effects of the COVID-19 response.

Even though Gov. Doug Ducey’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy, Stay Connected” order only applies to those who have a home, the order strongly urges people to “obtain shelter as soon as possible.”

In a community with resources already stretched thin, this is easier said than done.

“I don’t know where to go,” said Tania Garcia.

She has a suitcase but no destination. Garcia said she has been homeless for about a year now, but her circumstance has hit an all-time low.

“I’ve been sleeping in the tunnels, like the washes,” Garcia said. “Sometimes I go hungry.”

The City of Tucson has closed park amenities like playgrounds, gazebos, ramadas, volleyball and basketball courts and splash pads to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

With many businesses, libraries and park restrooms also closed, Garcia said she is having trouble finding a bathroom, even though health officials say it’s important to wash your hands regularly.

“I can’t even take a shower sometimes, it’s hard,” she said.

Garcia said she has had no luck getting into a shelter either.

Places like Gospel Rescue Mission are no longer taking new clients.

“We want to keep the population we have here safe, so we are sort of sheltering in place for the time being,” said Victor Hightower, a spokesperson for Gospel Rescue Mission.

The Salvation Army Hospitality House is currently at capacity and is taking in new clients as beds open up.

That’s why the Tucson Pima Collaboration to End Homelessness is brainstorming ways to address the problems those experiencing homelessness are facing while protecting public health. The group is made up of nonprofits, shelters, city leaders and county leaders. Each day, the Collaboration to End Homelessness hosts a conference call. Officials have recently been looking into renting hotel and motel rooms for those without a place to stay.

“We have got a line on a couple of whole, entire hotels who are willing to think about renting to us. The city has a line on three other facilities that might be available,” said Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Bob England. “The two hotels that [the County] has have a combined 180 rooms. If we put a couple of people in a room, we could have a few hundred people temporarily housed.”

England says this is a better alternative to shelters with mass sleeping quarters.

“I just want to get the ball rolling as quick as we can. If we are willing to put a couple people in a room together, that would certainly lessen the risk to everyone a lot, compared to everyone sleeping in one room,” he said. “We can do it really soon. We are assuming with all of the federal funding that is being talked about, some of it will come in to reimburse some of these costs.”

England says the county is also looking and renting hotel rooms for healthcare workers who are concerned about exposing loved ones to the virus.

No decisions have been made yet.

The city is also looking at putting out more porta-potties for those without access to restrooms.

While Gospel Rescue Mission is not sheltering new clients right now, it is making food available to those in need with its “Blessings to Go.”

“We feel for [the homeless],” Hightower said. “We want to help as many people as we can, but there are some challenges.”

For updates on the work being done by the Collaboration to End Homelessness, click here.

Copyright 2020 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.

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