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COVID-19 Testing Partnership Launched in Homeless Shelters in Phoenix and Jacksonville

Protecting people experiencing homelessness will help slow the spread and impact of the coronavirus.
May 21, 2020

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people in homeless shelters be tested for COVID-19. Additionally, people experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to contracting and spreading the coronavirus and are more likely to be hospitalized when infected. Yet access to testing supplies is a barrier for the organizations serving and sheltering homeless populations.

To help meet this critical need, Community Solutions teamed up with Quest Laboratories, local organizations, and county officials to test highly vulnerable people experiencing homelessness for COVID-19 in Maricopa County, Arizona, and Jacksonville, Florida.

Through this partnership, none of the people tested positive in Jacksonville, demonstrating that their social-isolation and quarantine efforts had been successful in protecting a vulnerable population like those experiencing homelessness. Results from the Phoenix partnership are still pending.

Jacksonville, FL Partnership

Community Solutions worked with our partners in Jacksonville, FL, to access COVID-19 test kits for their homeless population through Quest Diagnostics.  

Sulzbacher, a nonprofit organization that provides homeless services in downtown Jacksonville, partnered with University of Florida Health to administer tests at five of the largest homeless service providers in Jacksonville. They tested 679 people and all individuals received negative test results.

“Like many health care providers, the Sulzbacher Center has struggled to provide coronavirus testing to its patients, but the stakes are even higher when you’re working with people who are homeless in a shelter environment, because it’s communal living. If it starts going through a shelter, we’re in very big trouble, because it would be almost impossible to stop,” said Cindy Funkhouser, CEO, Sulzbacher Center in Jacksonville

Cindy Funkhouser, CEO, Sulzbacher Center in Jacksonville.

“The stakes are even higher when you’re working with people who are homeless in a shelter environment, because it’s communal living. If it starts going through a shelter, we’re in very big trouble, because it would be almost impossible to stop.”

— Cindy Funkhouser, CEO, Sulzbacher Center in Jacksonville

Nonetheless, the Jacksonville homeless response organizations created a protocol for people who might test positive. The protocol included social distancing requirements, proper signage about the CDC recommendations all facilities, setting up two isolation facilities for those who may need to be quarantined, ensuring adequate staffing at the sites, and providing three meals a day. Further, using tablets and tele-health, frontline workers had 24 hour access to a health care provider through Sulzbacher’s health center if a patient needed to be escalated due to symptoms. 

Led by Changing Homelessness, the homeless service providers were able to leverage their existing relationships with area hotels to provide private rooms for anyone who tested positive for the virus. Local hospitals were also able to discharge homeless people who needed to be quarantined.  Initial funding for the hotels came from the City of Jacksonville Urban Rest Stop grant, along with funding from private donors such as the United Way’s First Coast Relief Fund.

In Jacksonville, there are an estimated 2,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night. City leaders and their homeless response systems continue to work together to identify those at-risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 and developing the city’s  isolation and shelter response. 

Maricopa County Partnership

Sonora Quest Labs donated 300 tests to Community Solutions to support efforts to test people experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County. 

In Maricopa County, Circle the City, a federally-qualified health center that provides care for the homeless population, has been administering the tests and undertaking further assessments. Community Bridges, Inc, a homeless service provider, has provided transportation to testing facilities for individuals being tested. Additionally, community partners are working together to connect with individuals being tested and develop housing plans in permanent housing or in alternative care facilities. 

“Addressing the needs of people experiencing homelessness has always been a public health imperative. What this pandemic has done is lay this truth bare, as urgently and clearly as ever.”

Tamara Wright, Systems Transformation Advisor, Community Solutions.

In Phoenix and Maricopa County, there are an estimated 7,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night. To help protect unsheltered individuals from COVID-19,  Maricopa County and Phoenix leaders have developed alternative care facilities and built additional shelter capacity throughout the county to aid in social distancing. They have also focused their efforts on testing highly-vulnerable individuals who would be most at-risk of complications from infection, and moving these individuals to a safe short-term shelter set up by Maricopa County and their public health officials.