Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner came out Thursday to the Gulf Freeway overpass at Bellfort Street in southeast Houston to support the city’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among local homeless camps.
After a brief press conference alongside the Gulf Freeway feeder road, Turner joined a Solid Waste Department COVID-19 cleaning unit as they gathered up garbage that had accumulated around a homeless encampment under the highway. Turner said that between now and the end of the year, the city will use CARES Act funding to support a 30-member team that will regularly tidy-up any unsanitary waste collecting around homeless camps throughout Houston. The City has so far identified 70 different camps across Houston that will be routinely sanitized.
“Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you need to be living around trash and filth,” Turner said. “We want to make sure that their environment is as clean as possible, because we don’t want them to be getting the virus.”
“The homeless are not only more likely to catch COVID, but they’re also more likely to experience severe symptoms,” said Marc Eichenbaum, Special Assistant to the Mayor for Homeless Initiatives. He said this was due both to the lack of sanitary conditions in outdoor homeless camps and to the fact that most homeless individuals are predisposed to be in poorer health than the average person.
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Eichenbaum explained that since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Mayor’s Office for Homeless Initiatives has helped distribute almost 10,000 face masks and more than 5,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to the local homeless population, in addition to working with Harris County and regional management districts to place around 30 hand-washing stations in areas with high densities of homeless individuals. The Houston Health Department also runs a dedicated COVID-19 testing program for homeless Houstonians, and the city operates a facility where homeless individuals who have tested positive or have been exposed to COVID-19 can quarantine and isolate.
An important element of the city’s homeless camp cleanup efforts, Eichenbaum said, is to get rid of unsanitary items and garbage accumulated at camps “while respecting a person’s personal possessions,” and without attempting to move homeless individuals out of their current location. “That would cut them off from their long-term relationships with case managers,” said Eichenbaum.
Earlier this summer, the City of Houston and Harris County established a $65 million fund with the goal of housing 5,000 individuals experiencing homelessness in the greater Houston area. While city-sponsored sanitation efforts will continue for the foreseeable future to try and blunt the spread of COVID-19 among the area’s vulnerable homeless population, Turner said the ultimate goal is to get as many of these people into permanent housing through programs funded by the City’s joint initiative with Harris County.
“Until that takes place, in the midst of this coronavirus crisis, we want to do what we can to provide them with a clean, healthy environment,” Turner said.