Homeless community faces unique challenges during pandemic

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The coronavirus pandemic is affecting every segment of the population. Young and poor, rich and old, the virus can affect everyone, in one way or another. 

Those who are insulated from the economic effects of the virus can still get sick. Those who successfully ride out the pandemic without getting infected may nevertheless find themselves unemployed at the end of it.

Especially vulnerable are those who were already in a precarious situation before the crisis even began – the homeless population.

People experiencing homelessness not only face the basic danger of getting sick with the coronavirus but are also seeing resources they rely on dry up during the pandemic.

Aaron Petroff, director of the Social Work Action Group, which works with local cities including Lake Elsinore, said his organization is having trouble helping individuals get into treatment facilities.

“With this situation, treatment facilities had temporarily stopped taking people,” Petroff said. “We have a few people who are ready to go in waiting for the next bed space, and that’s been put on hold now for maybe about a month, maybe five weeks.”

Petroff’s organization, which is also known by the acronym SWAG, focuses on getting homeless individuals into transitional housing and treatment programs for mental health or addiction.

“Our normal operations almost always include getting somebody to the point where they’re willing to at least try behavioral health,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a slow approach – we’re not telling somebody something they don’t already know.”

He said it’s frustrating to be unable to get help for people who are willing to ask for it, but of course, he understands the reason why treatment centers are reluctant to accept new patients at the moment.

“Nobody wants to bring in one person to contaminate their whole operation,” he said.

Despite the difficulty in going about their usual work of helping people get off the streets, Petroff said SWAG is also focusing on other things, like ensuring local homeless individuals have access to food in a time when some food banks have ceased operations due to the pandemic, and the coronavirus has made it possibly hazardous to wait in line for food at the ones that are open.

“Normally we don’t like to just give out food and hygiene, but in this situation, we’re trying to help people stay isolated, not have to go in and ask for food three times a day,” Petroff said. “Someone on the streets, their normal routine is, ‘Typically I go to this public restroom, and I go to this food pantry here.’”

Petroff said SWAG workers and the group’s nurse practitioner are also checking on individuals to see if they report any symptoms of coronavirus during their daily contacts with those living on the streets, while maintaining social distancing and utilizing gloves and masks – the group ran out of medical masks but is now using cloth masks donated by members of the community, Petroff said.

He said the group is encouraging homeless individuals they work with to contact their team if anyone they know starts to develop symptoms.

“We just need to be in constant communication,” Petroff said. “It may not be you, but if your buddy starts to cough or have a fever… it’s really just trying to keep an open line of communication.”

Fortunately, the SWAG team has not encountered anyone reporting coronavirus symptoms so far. But Petroff stressed that they were available as a resource, and that the group’s medical practitioner and the rest of the team will work to get medical care for anyone who may need it.

“If somebody’s got a cough, we’ll have a nurse practitioner come out,” Petroff said.

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.