During COVID-19, the Dade County Street Response, our parent organization, identified that the same communities most neglected during hurricanes would also be the ones hardest hit during the pandemic. Immediately at the start of the pandemic, our Community Emergency Operations Center activated. By the beginning of March, we had mobilized 50 volunteers to conduct wellness checks over the phone of 1000s of people identified as vulnerable. Before conducting phone calls, each volunteer attended a short training on COVID-19, how to identify people that should be tested using a decision tree and general information about how to communicate important things like how the virus spread/how to protect themselves. Dr. Henderson directed people to the Emergency room for critical care, to testing facilities throughout the county and paid for testing for those who couldn’t afford it (in the March, testing was free at limited locations, under strict CDC guidelines). With the help of our coalition partners, we created an online resource map (updated daily) of testing facilities throughout all of FL, equipped with food distribution centers and other resources.
Once a lockdown was initiated in Miami Dade County, the focus switched from those in homes to those unsheltered. Dr. Henderson led the street team of 20 volunteers (civilians, medical students, doctors, nurse practitioners) who went out 2 times a week with food, toiletries, masks, and tents serving 100s of unsheltered people each outing. Medical volunteers also tested 100s of individuals on the street weeks before the homeless trust started doing outreach. We communicated with emergency services to coordinate EMS pick-ups for those in critical care, did on the spot wound care and also connected people on the street to social services available (including housing and mental health). One problem identified by the unsheltered population was the lack of outreach during the pandemic due to restriction of service organizations and prioritization of their safety first. Unsheltered individuals also noted having to talk walk miles to have access to running water and sanitation facilities, many of whom resorted to relieving themselves on the streets close to where they were sleeping.
As a public health measure, we fundraised to launch a full-service shower site in a local church parking lot in Overtown (St. Johns Missionary Baptist Church under leadership of Bishop Adams). The site was open for 12 hours a day at first, with 3 outdoor showers, 15 portable bathrooms and 5 hand washing stations, serviced multiple times during the week. We paid 5 volunteers to help manage the site $15/hour and also coordinated 70 unpaid volunteers who rotated through 3 hour shifts throughout the day. We then cut the hours down to 8hrs daily due to burn out and were able to manage the site for 8 consecutive months. During that time, the Dade County Street Response served 1000s of people, handed out over 500 tents, 1000s of masks, tested over 500 people, handed out 1000s of pounds of clothes/food/supplies. 1000s of people had access to running water, showers and toiletries. We also had social workers present from the homeless trust, Camillus health and other service providers coordinating shelter and quarantine placement.
While doing this, we also advocated for this population at commission meetings urging local legislators not to criminalize this population and instead focus on the public health solutions based on our observations on the ground. We sent recommendations letters to the Homeless Trust, the City of Miami, and the County about how to move forward with protecting the chronically unsheltered and treating them with the dignity they deserved. Many of the recommendation we made months ago are being instituted today.