Parishes | Schools | Priests | Masses |
More in this section MAIN MENU

Pandemic poses real threat to Florida's homeless

Charities agencies gird themselves and their clients as COVID-19 spread continues

English Spanish

In this file photo from March 2019, Evelyn Soto, director of New Life Family Center, a Catholic Charities emergency shelter serving homeless families in Miami-Dade County, speaks with families who are provided the services needed to move into permanent independent living and self-sufficiency. Local agencies are worried about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on local homeless populations.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

In this file photo from March 2019, Evelyn Soto, director of New Life Family Center, a Catholic Charities emergency shelter serving homeless families in Miami-Dade County, speaks with families who are provided the services needed to move into permanent independent living and self-sufficiency. Local agencies are worried about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on local homeless populations.

MIAMI | The COVID-19 global pandemic causing havoc across the U.S. poses a stark threat to homeless populations while an economic downturn may create a new wave of homelessness. 

Those are some of the worries that several Catholic Charities staff in the Archdiocese of Miami expressed recently, as they sharpen their response plans to the spread of COVID-19. 

As of March 20, the virus has claimed some 200 American lives and infected at least 15,000 in all 50 U.S. states, prompting a raft of growing restrictions and school closures from New York to California. 

Until last week, Broward County had been reporting the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state, according to the Florida Department of Health. Miami-Dade surpassed that number as of March 22, reporting 227 cases to Broward’s 217. Statewide, 13 deaths have been associated with the virus.

“We do have hand sanitizer and we have a lot of soap and water and Lysol. The Catholic Charities agency as a whole has really been diligent about promoting personal hygiene,” said Evelyn Soto, regional director for New Life Family Center, a Catholic Charities-sponsored motel-style facility near Miami’s downtown. 

At present, New Life is home for some 29 people who are taking refuge while they get back on their feet. Children and families are the central focus of New Life. They work with staff to move into independent living in rental properties.

“Luckily, we had a few move out just recently and we are preparing the rest of our clients by providing them information in writing about the virus and putting out a lot of soap to wash their hands,” Soto said. 

“Not a lot of them are in their rooms — either they go elsewhere or to jobs; they are keeping distance from one another and they are understanding what is going on,” said Soto.

In this file photo from November 2019, Peter Routsis-Arroyo, director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami, center, speaks during a recent tour of the construction site for a new Catholic Charities-sponsored St. Bede’s Village workforce development facility in Key West, expected to be completed as early as next summer. Local agencies are worried about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on local homeless populations.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

In this file photo from November 2019, Peter Routsis-Arroyo, director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami, center, speaks during a recent tour of the construction site for a new Catholic Charities-sponsored St. Bede’s Village workforce development facility in Key West, expected to be completed as early as next summer. Local agencies are worried about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on local homeless populations.

She worries, though, about the region's chronic homeless. Although they are not part of New Life’s outreach, they are part of the fabric of downtown Miami.

Every day or so, Soto and her staff participate in online webinars and training with other community agencies working with the homeless. The Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust has ramped up efforts to protect both sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations and staff in the face of the COVID-19 threat. 

The Homeless Trust reports that persons experiencing homelessness are among the community’s most vulnerable and may be at risk of COVID-19 infection. The agency has an extensive list of new recommendations for reducing the pandemic’s harm among South Florida’s homeless. 

“Our preparations have to consider the fact that much of our population does not have a ‘home’ with which to self-quarantine, therefore, we have broader issues to consider. We will continue to work to ensure homeless households have access to shelter, care and food while doing all we can to mitigate the virus’ spread,” said Ronald L. Book, Trust chairman, in a recent statement. 

 

‘SCARY BEAST’

Although the Miami region is well versed in hurricane recovery, a pandemic is new territory. 

“For administrators this is a scary beast. We may have to make some hard decisions,” said Peter Routsis-Arroyo, CEO of Catholic Charities, who noted some alarming features of the pandemic, including the specter of agency staff or administrators possibly needing to quarantine for long periods of time. 

To say nothing of the likelihood of some clients becoming ill. They will be encouraged to quarantine themselves from others in various ways from agency to agency. 

In this file photo from November 2019, Patrice Schwermer, the Key West-based Catholic Charities program director for Monroe County, sits with Father Luis Alberto Perez, right, pastor of San Pablo Catholic Church, and with Peter Routsis-Arroyo, CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami. Members of Catholic Charities' board of directors were touring parishes and programs in Monroe County. Local agencies are worried about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on local homeless populations.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FC

In this file photo from November 2019, Patrice Schwermer, the Key West-based Catholic Charities program director for Monroe County, sits with Father Luis Alberto Perez, right, pastor of San Pablo Catholic Church, and with Peter Routsis-Arroyo, CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami. Members of Catholic Charities' board of directors were touring parishes and programs in Monroe County. Local agencies are worried about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on local homeless populations.

In the Florida Keys, Patrice Schwermer, the Key West-based Catholic Charities program director for Monroe County, noted that although there is no known outbreak of COVID-19 in Key West — only one case has been reported so far — the town has declared a state of emergency and begun closing tourist attractions in anticipation of the virus spreading. 

“I am particularly concerned for the vulnerable elderly and those who are compromised (health-wise),” Schwermer said. 

“I think this moment is an opportunity for us faithful to not be fearful but to have love in our hearts and see how we can be of service to others,” she added. “Our Catholic social teaching has so much to say about what we are going through. This is about our common good, about solidarity and we are all in this today.”

Catholic Charities does have several housing units in Key West. Those residents are currently housed at an assisted living facility while waiting for completion of construction at a new St. Bede’s Village workforce development facility in Key West.

“Here in Monroe County the real concern now is the economic fallout: We are so heavily based on tourism and service economy that the fear of a hard economy and fear of losing jobs, of not being able to pay bills, is big here,” Schwermer said.

But she noted the willingness of local organizations and agencies to work together to protect the most vulnerable.

“I got the sense that each organization continues to work in their specialized area with an eye to how they can utilize their expertise and resources in this particular crisis,” Schwermer said. 

Soto added that although it's a stressful time, it is important to remain calm and avoid the temptation to panic. 

“At this time when things are getting so scary for a lot of people, sometimes it is better to be still and wait and hope for the best,” she said.  

Monroe County groups taking steps to deal with pandemic

MIAMI | In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, community groups in Monroe County have called for a number of actions:

  • Food pantries, the area school district, social services and soup kitchens are continuing to provide food but doing it as a grab-and-go service rather than group meals. Meal packages may start to include coronavirus information flyers.
  • Children/childcare: The local school district suggested there may be additional closings beyond the already extended spring break period of March 30, prompting the need for bolstered child care and summer camp programing.
  • Mental health services: the pandemic may trigger emotional challenges for people due to increased isolation, the stress of unemployment and economic loss, and increased childcare demands.
  • Homeless outreach and shelters will continue to do the work they always do, making sure homeless clients sleep head to toe and encouraging them to practice social distancing and good hygiene as well as learn the symptoms related to COVID-19.

“It is important for the local community to do what it can to respond but the need likely will be much greater than we can handle,” said Patrice Schwermer, the Key West-based Catholic Charities program director for Monroe County. “It will be important to communicate with elected officials to ask them to make needed funds available for our communities.”

Click here to post your comments about this article.

Latest News

Breaking News

Feature News

Parish News

School News

Sports

Columns

Press Release

Statements