Robert Arrington has been homeless for more than a year after losing his job as a carpenter’s helper. When he was working, he says, he wasn’t making a killing, but he earned enough to rent a room in his employer’s apartment.

“He got fired,” Arrington explains. “I was left out in the cold.”

Arrington stands outside of a West Durham convenience store, leaning on a cooler that’s not in use, cigarette in hand. He has a pronounced wet cough. He struggles with alcohol, but it’s hard to turn down a momentary escape from his grim reality, he says. 

He sleeps in an abandoned car parked in an apartment complex and spends his days doing odd jobs for which the convenience store pays him $5 a day and the occasional pack of smokes. 

“They give me a little money,” he says. “Every now and then they give me something extra. They won’t let me go hungry.”

In March, stay-at-home orders were rolled out in Durham and Wake County, then statewide. They’ll be in effect through the end of April, if not longer. But for those without stable housing, it presented a unique problem: Where do you stay when you have no place to go?

An estimated 27,900 people in North Carolina experienced homelessness at some point in 2019. Left unchecked, officials say, COVID-19 could spread like wildfire among the state’s homeless populations. The homeless tend to have underlying conditions that make coronavirus infections more dangerous, and they lack regular access to medical care. 

Last week, Governor Cooper announced a FEMA-funded plan to partner with hotels and motels, colleges and universities, trailer owners, and other large-scale facilities—16,500 units total—to shelter people with unstable housing situations who have tested for COVID-19, are at high risk, or may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Health officials have not yet determined how many homeless individuals across the state have tested positive for COVID-19. 

“We’re hoping to have a data point soon about positive cases in people who are homeless or who have worked or stayed in a homeless shelter recently,” says state Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Amy Adams Ellis.

Days after Cooper’s announcement, the Durham County Board of Commissioners approved a $1.6 million plan to move at least 250 people staying at the Durham Urban Ministries and Families Moving Forward shelters into the Marriott Hotel at Research Triangle Park. Wendy Jacobs, who chairs the board, says the decision was made to adhere to social distancing guidelines. 

“It’s not possible to do that in a shelter,” Jacobs says. “Any congregational setting is ripe for the spread of the virus.”

The county’s plan does not include those who have found refuge at the privately operated Durham Rescue Mission, which shelters about 270 men each night. The Rescue Mission, the state’s oldest and largest homeless shelter, has secured two houses and rooms at the Good Samaritan Inn to isolate clients who have COVID-19 symptoms. By late last week, the Mission had tested 10 people for the virus. The results all came back negative.

Wake County has also taken a proactive approach, says Lorena McDowell, director of housing affordability and community revitalization. Of the county’s nearly 400 cases, only two have come from people experiencing homelessness. 

“We acknowledged these folks were vulnerable early on,” McDowell says. “Should COVID-19 get into that population, they are very close-knit and sleep in close quarters, in tents or in shelters, and they are the ones who have a higher likelihood of serious health risks and concerns with COVID-19.”

The first step, McDowell says, was thinning out the shelters, which are almost always full. That, in turn, makes social distancing impossible. The county identified the most vulnerable individuals who were still healthy and asymptomatic and moved them to hotel rooms, creating enough space in shelters for social distancing.

Shelters also started serving meals in shifts to avoid having large gatherings at once and began to offer lunch, which they hadn’t served previously, to encourage people to stay in the shelter during the day. 

Oak City Cares, a downtown Raleigh hub that helps connect people experiencing housing instability to community services, had initially closed because it was almost entirely run by volunteers, McDowell says. But it partially reopened to allow people to use its restrooms and shower. 

Wake’s response has come with tough choices, including suspending the lottery system used to offer bed space to those currently on a waiting list and cutting down on the number of people circulating in and out of the shelter. 

At the same time, the county has ramped up efforts to provide meals. As of last week, county officials have served over 200,000 meals “just to help people eat through this crisis because a number of these soup kitchens have closed their doors,” McDowell says. 

Meals are important, but they can only go so far. “Housing is the answer right now for this crisis,” McDowell says. 

In Durham, you’ll still find the homeless along deserted streets near downtown or sleeping with their heads on the grass along sidewalk curbs. For some, “home” is a collection of flattened cardboard boxes and blankets secreted away behind a grocery store.

Arrington is relatively lucky. The convenience store gives him a place to be every day. He chats with customers who know him as a fixture. But he still wants a home, even if it’s temporary. 

After learning about the county commissioners’ decision to relocate the homeless to an RTP hotel, he waved down a reporter on Friday night. 

“Hey! You heard anything yet?” 

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