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COVID-19 and Code Blue: A Brutal Combination for the Homeless

As omicron cases rise, so does the severity of cold temperatures, both presenting challenges for the unhoused population. Philadelphia’s homeless shelters have been hit extra hard with frigid temperatures dropping into the singles, causing the city to enact the “Code Blue '' protocol. Code Blue is enacted when temperatures feel near or below 20 degrees. Along with 24-hour outreach to help find and transport homeless individuals to safer indoor spaces, the city also opens all available beds within the emergency housing network and allows homeless people to stay throughout the day. Homeless outreach teams also patrol outside to offer extra aid, and first responders are also informed of Code Blue protocol, authorizing the Philadelphia Police to transport individuals who want help to shelters nearby. While this protocol is beneficial to keeping the homeless population safe from the harsh weather conditions, it adds complications for shelters because of the threats with COVID-19 and the new omicron variant.

With more people coming to shelters, the dilemma arises of providing safe spaces for either immunocompromised or medically vulnerable individuals and COVID-positive residents. Contracting the omicron variant is even more threatening for these individuals. People that utilize the shelter system are more likely to have preexisting conditions and less access to vaccines. In one SELF site alone, 36 people tested positive, escalating the issue of offering everyone a safe space from the brutally cold temperatures while protecting from the virus. Some shelters have designated one room to COVID-positive residents, but that does not prevent cross-contamination in communal spaces like the bathroom and dining center.

The city has added 304 beds for Code Blue this winter, some of them being in COVID prevention spaces for shelter residents that might need more protection from the virus because of health conditions. 150 of these beds are already in place, and they plan to add 40 more to help combat the challenges that shelters are facing. The city also would like to open a 40-bed

COVID isolation recovery site for male residents, but lack of staffing makes it challenging to complete.

Though Philadelphia might have plans to help, some shelters found that they are not acting on them. During the first week of January, SELF, an emergency-housing organization, could not contact the city’s quarantine site. The site closes at 4 pm and on weekends, forcing infected residents to find shelters that accept COVID-positive people or find other options. SELF allowed the 16 residents to stay, but as a result, staff members had to work overtime to care for the positive residents while protecting others. Shelter staff are anticipating another variant to emerge and are waiting for the city to provide more resources and solutions. Without proper assistance from the city, shelters will remain understaffed and overwhelmed, and the homeless population will be forced to choose between the bitter cold and exposure to the virus that has led to more than 5.5 million deaths worldwide.

What can you do to help?

If you know of any unhoused individuals who might need to be checked on or transported to a safe indoor space, you can call the city’s hotline (215) 232-1984, and someone trained will be sent to offer help. While monetary donations are always appreciated, other ways to help include donations of food, clothing, and everyday items to groups like Women Against Abuse and Potters House Mission. Philadelphia's Office of Homeless Services has a list on its website that specifies items needed for each organization. A pack of socks or a winter coat may be a small gesture for you, but it can make all the difference to someone who receives it.

Volunteering at a shelter is usually encouraged, but some organizations are only offering virtual opportunities because of COVID-19 and Code Blue policies. Volunteers may cause more problems for the trained staff on hand. It is best to check organization websites to sign up for allotted times or remote options like making activity kits or masks.

Donating and volunteering are both incredibly helpful to Philadelphia’s homeless population, but educating yourself and others is just as important. Spreading awareness of the circumstances that may lead to homelessness and sharing the city’s hotline is an effective way to help.

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