A person experiencing homelessness in Atlanta.

A person experiencing homelessness in Atlanta. / GPB News

As many of us worry about the health and welfare of ourselves and loved ones right now, people experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. As of January 2019, the federal government estimates Georgia has more than 10,000 people without homes, including veterans, families and unaccompanied young adults.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s coronavirus task force has provided guidelines for communities to help the homeless in their coronavirus emergency planning.

Those recommendations were led by experts in Atlanta.

GPB's Rickey Bevington speaks with Atlanta's homelessness chief Cathryn Marchman about the city's plans to serve people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus outbreak.

Cathryn Marchman is the executive director of Partners for Home, which executes the city of Atlanta’s homeless policy.

She spoke with GPB’s Rickey Bevington Wednesday.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness 

Rickey Bevington: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp asked Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to chair the Committee for the Homeless and Displaced. You helped her committee put together six big objectives for homeless communities around Georgia. What are those top level items?

Cathryn Marchman: The recommendations to the governor are: to prevent additional people from becoming homeless; support enhanced cleaning, screening and referral; expand testing for high-risk individuals in areas; establish a reporting process specific to homeless and displaced persons; ensure appropriate options for quarantine and isolation; and then finally ensure transportation options are available.

Bevington: And you're rolling out some of these brand new services right now. What kind of new things are you doing this week?

Marchman: Some of the critical things that we are working on right now are standing up an isolation hotel to open tomorrow. That will be up to 173 beds for isolation and quarantine. That will be dedicated to individuals who are displaced or experiencing homelessness. And they have tested positive and need a place to safely isolate or they have a known positive exposure and need a place to safely quarantine. So we are working furiously right now to staff up and be ready to open our doors for that hotel tomorrow. And we are expecting that we would have to potentially grow and expand from there.

The other thing that we are standing up right now and is being led by our health care for the homeless organization. Mercy Care [is] ramping up testing in the community. And we are actually going to start with our four to five largest congregate shelters in the Atlanta area. Mercy Care will be at those shelters starting next week, testing on a wide scale basis, everyone in the shelters. That is really an effort to ensure that we can contain possible spread that might be happening, identify individuals who are positive, do case tracking for individuals who might have had exposure to those individuals and get those individuals to isolation and quarantine to prevent further spread.

Bevington: There are hundreds of people in the city of Atlanta, in metro Atlanta and in other communities around Georgia who need this kind of support. Why are people experiencing homelessness more vulnerable to COVID-19?

Marchman: I think the primary answer is two reasons. One, many in our population of individuals experiencing homelessness - about 40 percent of them - are over the age of 55. So they they tend to fall in high risk categories for COVID-19 either because of age or because of having chronic medical conditions like heart disease and diabetes, which makes them a riskier category of individuals for the disease or the virus. Secondly, because many individuals experiencing homelessness are in congregate environments by nature of being in a shelter or transitional housing program. Many shelters and transitional housing are set up in a congregate style, either in a dormitory with beds that are next to each other or in close proximity to each other. And so it makes it very difficult for those individuals to social distance and isolate or quarantine if they don't have a home to do it in.

Bevington: I've seen you out and about in the community as a journalist covering your work. You are really familiar with people on a day-to-day basis. You talk to people who were out on the streets and shelters. What are they saying to you?

Marchman: That's an interesting question. A provider told me recently that a person who was homeless told him, "We don't have to worry about the homeless people because no one wants to get near them anyway." And I thought that was such an interesting take on this as we are scrambling and working so hard to protect such a highly vulnerable population. But it also made me stop and think about how isolating and alienating it must be even more so than normal for a person experiencing homelessness during this time.

So the particular individual really felt like they're not at risk because most people don't want to be near them anyway. And they are social distancing by default, so to speak. Other folks we've talked to are less concerned, are going about their daily life just as they would normally. You know, as far as normal goes in the life of somebody experiencing homelessness. Other folks are really having to figure out how to get their needs met in a new environment because many social service agencies have closed. And there are fewer agencies that are serving meals that are taking new intakes for shelter. And so they are now really trying to figure out how to survive in a new environment.

Bevington: Today is April 1st. Rent is due. Mortgage payments are due. Many, many people are out of a job. Are you worried about a surge in homelessness as a result of the economy imploding right now?

Marchman: We are certainly very worried about a surge. There is no question that many individuals in our community are strained exponentially. We heard from a provider this morning who does evening meals. His food service has doubled in the last week or so from serving about 150 a night to now serving upwards of 300 people a night. And he is seeing more and more people who have housing but do not have access to the financial resources to buy food. He many people he talked to just last night were living in the nearby area, but needed needed a meal. And so we are very concerned about the increased strain on our resources in homelessness being tapped by the broader public of folks that are struggling themselves to get by.