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"It feels like you're in a boat trying to paddle through a hurricane"

caption: King County's 2019 one-night count of people who are homeless found fewer people than in 2018. Officials say they’re not celebrating, but this indicates some progress.
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King County's 2019 one-night count of people who are homeless found fewer people than in 2018. Officials say they’re not celebrating, but this indicates some progress.
KUOW Photo/Juan Pablo Chiquiza

Dawn Whitson is an outreach care coordinator working with Seattle's homeless population. She spoke to The Record's Bill Radke about what it's like to work in homeless services during a pandemic.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Bill Radke: This is the record. I'm Bill Radke. Thanks for joining us. What are the city and local outreach organizations doing to help our region's homeless population right now? Yesterday I spoke to Dawn Whitson, an outreach care coordinator for REACH. That's the Homeless Services Program at Evergreen Treatment Center. And she told me what she's been doing for people during the pandemic.

Dawn Whitson: We have a couple of agencies that we're working with that are providing daily lunches for REACH. I deliver food from the food bank twice a week, I am able to provide a limited amount of clothing for people who are in emergency situations, just based on donations that we have at our office and sometimes even going through my own closet or my boyfriend's closet.

We have a street medical team that works for the DESC that I'm able to call in case an actual provider is needed for somebody's medical treatment on the street. And we have nurses who work with Neighborcare that are part of a partnering agency with REACH that usually outreach with us that are able to do limited services for wound care and that sort of thing. And they have actually started doing COVID-19 testing now onsite.

Bill Radke :What are some other main needs your clients are having beyond food and medical care and clothing?

Dawn Whitson: I think the biggest one right now that we're facing with COVID-19 is just the lack of access to hygiene stations or, not even shower facilities, but just toilets and hand washing stations. Most of the locations that have been opened in the past for the unsheltered community are closed right now.

Whether they're community centers or places like a library, even some of the local businesses that usually will allow the homeless population to use the restroom. Those are not accessible right now. So trying to talk to people about being safe and trying to manage their own risk level is really difficult when we can't actually provide them with the means to follow the CDC protocols right now for COVID safety.

Bill Radke: You told the Seattle City Council about that hygiene gap. What did they say?

Dawn Whitson: Well, I think that the city council responded fairly well. But, you know, their hands are fairly limited. So it's one thing to say that they are really interested, it's another thing to actually be able to do something dramatically different. A lot of the things that would solve some of the problems that we're looking at right now, those ideas don't end up rising to the top. So Mayor Durkan may or may not hear about those things, or may or may not be interested in those things.

Bill Radke: What's one of those ideas?

Dawn Whitson: Well, I mean, I think the easiest way to resolve some of the problems that we're having right now with the community outside is to just offer sanctioned campsites. And the city has been really reluctant to do that for a long time, for a number of different reasons that I think are just politically driven.

But being able to provide a safe place for people to camp that would be centralized enough for us to be able to find our clients, offer services to them, provide hygiene stations and hand washing stations, just makes the most sense on the street level. But it's just sort of fallen on deaf ears every time we bring that particular subject up.

The other thing that we've been trying to push for that we haven't gotten much response from the city about has been using the National Guard to supplement the staffing issues that we've been told are kind of one of the logistical problems with providing hygiene stations or sanitation stations, or shower stations, that sort of thing.

Bill Radke: Yeah, I asked the mayor of Seattle, Jenny Durkan, about opening more bathrooms and hand washing stations. And here's what she said:

Mayor Durkan: The request to the governor for National Guard by the county to man some of the isolation, quarantine, and other facilities was not successful at this point because they thought they might have to deploy them other places. The biggest impediment we have right now to broad scale, greater sheltering capability is really the lack of personnel. Because we don't want to just create shelter. We want to create the services that people need, as well as the facilities they need.

Dawn Whitson: Well, I would say that there are probably a large number of city personnel that are working from home or not able to work right now because they aren't in essential positions that could be redeployed into other areas of service.

Staffing a bathroom isn't exactly a high skill set position, we would need to have a few people who are skilled or at least experienced working with people who have experienced a lot of trauma or may have mental health issues. But again, I mean, you could have like one person able to mitigate any kind of conflict or crisis that might take place, along with a number of other relatively unskilled people that would like to actually have jobs right now.

I guess the question is, at what time do we determine that the bodily functions and hygiene needs of the homeless population become essential services, right? So if those were deemed essential services the same way that food is deemed essential services, then suddenly people would be able to fill the gaps for those for those positions, even supplementing the people who are too high needs to actually be able to come back to work in those spots.

Bill Radke: In the meantime, are you telling your clients they need to go into a shelter now where they can wash their hands?

Dawn Whitson: Well, a lot of the shelters right now in the city are actually closed. Some of them are quarantine, and some of them have been doing their best to actually expand capacity space. So even the additional beds that the city has been able to open up, have been targeted for those people who are already existing in shelters. So for about the past month, we really haven't had any shelter availability to offer to our clients.

So it's not my first recommendation for people to go into an environment where they are in a congregate setting that is much higher risk of actually infecting them. We've been asking people to do their very best to shelter in place and to provide extra tents for those people that are sharing small living quarters with other people so that they can actually have their own space.

Bill Radke: What about hotel rooms would have been made available. Do they have similar issues as shelters?

Dawn Whitson: To my knowledge, no. DESC just moved, I believe last week, 300 people into the Red Lion down in Renton. And I hear that's actually going fairly well. I think that's another option that I wish that this city would look at in the same way that California has done. I know that there are some practical barriers to that, just in terms of the property value and the property potential damage that could take place there. But I think those things can be mitigated and so far are being mitigated in the case of what's happening at the Red Lion. I think right now, it's just a matter of the city meeting to consider the lives and the health and the safety and the risk to the people who are currently unhoused as a higher priority than it is right now.

Bill Radke: What's happening to homeless people who test positive?

Dawn Whitson: So it's my understanding that once somebody has tested positive that they are asked to relocate to one of the quarantine centers that the city has set up for people who don't have a place to quarantine themselves. I haven't had any clients that I've heard back from since they have actually gone to those locations.

So it's very unclear yet exactly what their experience in those environments is going to be or has been. And until we see some people that are coming out of those locations, and have some information to share with us about how they were treated are, what allowances were made or provisions were made for their substance use disorders, I am nervous about how those quarantine sites are actually going to work out for them.

There's been some talk about involuntarily detaining people who try to leave, and that makes me kind of shudder to think that their personal liberties might be taken away from them in an effort to protect our public health.

Bill Radke: What do you think are the odds that the number of COVID-19 cases among the homeless population is going to rise significantly?

Dawn Whitson: Honestly, I'm surprised that we haven't seen a mass amount of infections already. Most of the cases that have been positive so far, I believe have been in shelter settings. And for that reason, they may have not reached the unsheltered population that are living on the streets. But once that makes its way down to our clients on the streets, I do believe we are going to see a widespread infection rate and have a much higher rate of mortality than it does for most of our community's population.

For a couple of reasons, aside from the fact that most of our clients do suffer from other underlying complicated medical conditions or comorbidities, they also have a history of not being treated that well when they go into medical settings. So they are, most of them, quite resistant to going to hospitals in the first place. And my fear is that if our health system becomes overloaded, and there is some triage being done or decisions being made about who is going to get a ventilator and who isn't, I am afraid that it won't be our clients.

Bill Radke: Dawn Whitson is an outreach care coordinator for Evergreen Treatment Center. Dawn, it sounds like as an outreach employee right now, you're not able to think about your usual approach, which is helping people move forward in their lives. It's like you're just trying to keep them from slipping away.

Dawn Whitson: Correct. Yes. I know that I've talked to my co workers about feeling the same sense of impotence in regards to you know, I'm delivering food to you, but I'm not able to help you get connected to benefits right now and I'm not able to help you get an ID. I'm not able to even get you set up with somebody like Sound Mental Health. I'm not able to get you an intensive case manager so that you can start moving towards a permanent housing solution for your situation.

But also, there's so much information and so many moving parts that we have in place right now that are changing so quickly. Information's changing so quickly, lots of different agencies trying to collaborate and get the basic survival needs met for our clients, that it sort of feels like you're in a boat trying to paddle through a hurricane right now that's just never ending.

Bill Radke: So Dawn, you're working with vulnerable people right now. But how vulnerable are you feeling, for your own health?

Dawn Whitson: To tell you the truth, I feel a lot more confident that if somebody is actually going to be a threat to anyone, I'm probably more likely to get them sick than they are to get me sick. I don't think that most of us are that concerned with the risks that we're taking. But I think that's because when you're faced with the daily struggle to survive for your clients, it's really hard to weigh that against, you know, I would be lying if I said there weren't times when I wish I could just stay home and be safe, and spend time with my mom. But I'm not able to spend time with my family members that are higher risk, because I know that I could potentially infect them.

And I also know that if I'm not going out to help my clients and nobody is. REACH is one of the last teams that are still actually on the streets in the city helping people. A number of our better outreach teams have had to shut down for a number of different reasons. And I just don't know what would happen to my clients if I wasn't there.

Bill Radke: What are you doing to stay healthy yourself? Physically healthy and mentally healthy?

Dawn Whitson: So we do our best to still try to have some self care along the way. I do a lot of prayer. I do try to meditate and we are following CDC protocols to try our best to remain distant from people. It's difficult sometimes when you're trying to hand somebody supplies or something. We will try to like set something on the ground and then let them pick it up. But it doesn't always work out that way. We wear gloves, we wear masks, particularly when we are handing out food. And then just using hand sanitizer a lot, making sure that we're protecting our clients as much as we're protecting ourselves.

My agency has stopped outreaching in pairs, which has put some additional strain on our team, even though it's allowed us to reach more people. That was part of our practice in the past was to work together. And now even when we are outreaching in pairs, we're we're actually in separate vehicles so that we can maintain social distance in our cars.

Bill Radke: Dawn Whitson is doing homeless outreach for Evergreen Treatment Center. Dawn, what's making you hopeful right now anything?

Dawn Whitson: Well, I mean, it's hard not to be hopeful simply because we haven't seen a widespread infection rate amongst our clients yet. And we had expected it by now. And I know that this virus has been very unpredictable, but so far, it really hasn't caused the kind of health problems that we were really expecting to take place earlier in the game. So that is hopeful to me. The idea that we may have flattened the curve enough that they may escape widespread infection is a nice thought.

And just hopeful because I know that eventually we're going to get past this and there may be some good things that could come out of this entire pandemic, whether that be being a good time to get people like Mayor Durkan to provide sanctioned camp sites that might then be able to continue after the pandemic has died down. They have expedited a lot of projects for tiny houses and additional shelters that will probably remain in place after this situation has died down, and those may not have ever taken place had we not had this larger motivation.

So I think there could be some good changes that come as a matter of life and death necessity that we could continue to carry on. But right now some of the biggest changes that we were hoping for have just not materialized.

Bill Radke: Dawn, what do you want people to know about the folks you work with and about that work itself?

Dawn Whitson: I guess I would just ask that people try to be intentional in their awareness of the fact that some of the more marginalized groups, the unsheltered populations that are on the streets right now, are not just trying to survive COVID-19. They're trying to survive a world without access to any of the resources that have basically helped them to survive up until now. And without those they are backed into a corner in a way that many of them have never been backed into before. And for that reason, we may see erratic behavior out of desperation. And the best possible answer for that would be reprioritizing every one of our neighbors, not just our housed neighbors. And making their survival needs at the top of everyone's priority list in an effort to avoid seeing some of the more desperate actions that people take to survive.

Bill Radke: Dawn Whitson is an outreach worker for REACH. That's Evergreen Treatment Center's homeless outreach program. Dawn, we really appreciate you telling us about the work you're doing and the people you know. Thanks.

Dawn Whitson Thank you so much for taking the time to care about our people. I appreciate it. I'm glad to help.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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