The City of Tucson rolled out its new program using local hotels to provide shelter and isolation for the homeless population exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms or who are at high risk for contracting the disease.
The program currently has a total of 315 rooms split between two hotels. One hotel will have 115 rooms dedicated to the homeless already ill, while the second hotel will offer 200 rooms for those who may be at high-risk, such as the elderly homeless population, said Liz Morales, Director of City of Tucson’s Housing & Community Development Department.
“It has taken a lot of coordination but we are moving people from our shelters that are either symptomatic or at very high risk based on their age or underlying health conditions,” Morales said. “We have a screening tool that allows us to identify what category they meet, and then we move them based on that criteria.”
The program is funded through a $1.67 million Emergency Solutions Grant allocated from the city’s $44 million CARES Act package. ESG money is to be used to prevent and prepare for a potential coronavirus outbreak in Tucson’s homeless population, said Morales.
“A good portion of this money will go to this effort because we’re looking at not just the hotel cost, but the contracts with those providing support services,” Morales said. “There’s a lot of costs that are involved, from transportation, to meals, to security. We’re still trying to gather all the cost and we also know there’s a lot of other needs we need to address.”
The program will work in two phases. The first phase will focus on screening the homeless population in shelters and the second phase will focus on the homeless in parks and encampments, according to Morales.
“The goal of this is to get (the homeless) out of congregate shelters and into isolation so that they’re not in close proximity. That’s the first phase”, Morales said. “The next phase is to work with those who aren’t in shelters but are being served through our outreach teams. There’s a lot of people who don’t have access to shelters because the shelters have had to reduce capacity lately.”
In addition to offering medical and lodging services, the program is also providing case management and behavioral health services for people in need while taking part in the program.
“As we work with each individual, we’re trying to figure out the best way help them,” Morales said. “Our goal is to try to get everyone in some sort of housing situation. If that’s not available and they are well, then we will look to putting them back to the shelters.”
Morales said the program can also benefit people who may not have lodging after being treated for COVID-19 and discharged by a hospital, as well.
“When the hospital needs to discharge them if they don’t have a home or a place to go to they could be referred to our program,” Morales said.
Ward 6 Councilmember Steve Kozachik is a proponent of the city’s new program. For the past three weeks, the councilmember has been working together with Morales, the shelter operator community, the healthcare community and Tucson Police Department to establish the program and decide how to best benefit the homeless community.
“Because we don’t have the testing capacity right now that we need, this is an absolute must for us to be able to expand capacity,” Kozachik said. “The situation is that many of our shelters are in “shelter in place” situations.”
Kozachik said the majority - if not all - Tucson shelters are not accepting new people at this time due to the “shelter in place” order, in an attempt to prevent the disease’s spread among their population. Because of this “new reality”, Kozachik said the program is extremely important for the community’s health.
“If somebody walked up to the door three weeks ago the option would be for the shelter to admit them. That’s no longer the case in the new reality,” Kozachik said. “We are trying to manage community spread. When we have people that are symptomatic, if we can get them into an isolated setting where they can receive the health treatment that they need, that benefits everybody.”