Social distancing and following stay-at-home orders may seem simple for those safe inside of their homes, but it is not always easy for homeless people. Through partnerships with Healthcare for the Homeless and the Houston Outreach Medicine Education and Social Services (HOMES) Clinic, the Baylor community is serving the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic by offering testing, proper care and basic necessities.
A COVID-19 test for the homeless
Frances Isbell, chief executive officer of Healthcare for the Homeless, said homeless people often gather in large groups in places like soup kitchens, shelters or encampments, which makes it difficult to maintain social distancing, a key element in preventing the spread of the virus. She adds that they often lack access to soap and water and hand sanitizers.
“Most people who are living on the streets or in shelters have multiple health conditions, so they’re very vulnerable during this time,” Isbell said.
Healthcare for the Homeless, a clinic staffed by Baylor’s Department of Family and Community Medicine that provides health services for homeless people, is providing COVID-19 testing and care for those living in shelters or on the streets.
Isbell explains that providing testing for the homeless population is not only important for their health, but also the health of communities throughout Houston.
“Because they congregate in large groups the spread would be like wildfire among them,” Isbell said. “That would then get out into the greater community as well.”
Healthcare for the Homeless has become the city’s main COVID-19 testing site for those who are living in the streets or in shelters. Isbell explains that patients take an online assessment with the help of outreach workers, case managers or the clinic’s staff. If they test positive on the online test, then the patient is brought to the in-person testing site.
Isbell adds that the city has contracted with Houston Yellow Cab to pick up patients who need to be tested. A hotel is also provided for patients who need to be quarantined after testing positive or cared for after being discharged from the hospital.
“Some of the main goals are to keep people out of the emergency room and to try to reduce the exposure in both the encampments and the shelters,” Isbell said.
Baylor students serve the homeless
Like Healthcare for the Homeless, Baylor students are finding ways to care for the homeless community during the pandemic.
Since HOMES, a student-run clinic operated out of The Beacon in downtown Houston, is temporarily closed due to the outbreak, students are fundraising and collecting donations of basic necessities like hygiene products, hand sanitizer, socks and water to support the homeless and The Beacon.
“We recognize that the needs of this community we serve still exist and are in many ways amplified,” said John Thomas Gebert, a third-year M.D./Ph.D. student at Baylor and clinical volunteer and executive board member for HOMES. “The Beacon typically serves around 250 homeless individuals per day, but is now serving around 600 individuals per day.”
To further prevent the spread of the virus, the students at HOMES have established and are maintaining mobile hand-washing stations across downtown Houston for the homeless.
“Hand hygiene is an integral part of curbing the spread of viruses, and we hope that these stations will help prevent the spread among those without stable housing,” Gebert said.
As public health officials call for stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines, Gebert reiterates that there are many who do not have a home to social distance in or practice proper hand washing.
“These conditions are uncertain for individuals who are homeless,” Gebert said. “It is easy to lose sight of this when we are all facing difficulties of our own, but it is vital that we not forget about marginalized populations. Any resources we can provide to assist the homeless are as important now as ever.”
The HOMES Clinic is managed by volunteer medical and pharmacy students from Baylor, University of Texas Health Science Center and the University of Houston.
– By Kaylee Dusang