The Dallas Life homeless shelter was closed and evacuated Friday after 17 residents tested positive for COVID-19.
It is an example of the challenge of shelter in place orders for people who have no homes and for the people who serve them.
Buses lined up on Cadiz Street outside the Dallas Life Shelter Friday to carry 171 people who’d been staying there to quarantine.
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Executive Director Bob Sweeney said one client showed coronavirus symptoms last week, then two more tested positive.
“The Health Department encouraged us to get everyone tested. So the last two days they tested 171 people and 17 came up positive. None of those 17 are showing any symptoms, but they thought it would be best that those 17 as well as everyone else, be placed in a 14-day quarantine off-site,” Sweeney said.
Dallas has thousands of homeless people. Around 1,100 are on the street each day.
Coronavirus carriers who show no symptoms are a huge threat to all those people and to anyone else they come in contact with, who may suffer more severe consequences from the potentially fatal disease.
Social distancing suggested for everyone else to reduce the spread of coronavirus is very difficult to impose on homeless people.
An added recommendation, effective at midnight Friday, is that everyone wear face coverings to combat COVID-19.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who added the face-covering recommendation, said it should also apply to homeless people and the agencies that serve them.
“We do have an outbreak now in one of the homeless service providers, and it’s very hard. The homeless population, encampment is very similar to nursing homes, very hard to control a spread there,” Jenkins said. “Yes, it would be very helpful because that is an endangered population if the homeless wore masks.”
Sweeney said his shelter recently acquired hundreds of donated masks.
"It is achievable when masks are available," Sweeney said.
The Dallas Salvation Army Shelter on Harry Hines Boulevard has no report of coronavirus. But a client who was concerned about the threat of disease transmission sent photos to NBC 5 that suggest other clients are often too close to one another at that shelter.
Executive Director Blake Fetterman said her staff encourages social distancing.
“If they choose not to, that's hard. But we just have to constantly remind and redirect,” she said.
The Salvation Army sent photos of its own that show staff wearing masks, a large supply of masks enough for every client, new check-in procedures, wider spacing of beds, and marks on the floor to promote social distancing in this pandemic.
“The need is growing exponentially, which of course strains our resources,” Fetterman said.
While demand for the Salvation Army’s food pantry and other services is growing, income is declining. Fundraising activities have been blocked and the money-making Salvation Army thrift store is closed.
The Dallas Life clients who were removed Friday were taken to a Farmers Branch hotel for two weeks of lodging and meals to be paid for by the City of Dallas.
“What a gracious gesture, showing Dallas really does care about the homeless,” Sweeney said.
In the past few weeks, Sweeney said Dallas Life was working hard to combat coronavirus by reducing the number of clients in the shelter and other measures.
A new round of prevention will occur while the place is empty.
“We'll be able to disinfect and fumigate the building while folks are gone and then we'll all return to a new normal,” Sweeney said.
The DART buses that were used to transport Dallas Life residents will also be quarantined and thoroughly cleaned before returning to service, according to an email from DART spokesman Mark Ball.