Shelter unsafe to house the homeless to stop the spread of the virus

While most Louisvillians are #safeathome, our city has failed to show any compassion to the most vulnerable of our citizens. Seven thousand people in this city do not have secure housing; on any given night, our shelters are overflowing and hundreds of people sleep outside. I am the psychiatric nurse practitioner on an Assertive Community Treatment team, or ACT.

The team is designed to help individuals with a severe mental illness who are experiencing repeated homelessness, incarceration and/or institutionalization, and who need more than traditional outpatient services. The ACT team comes directly to the client, whether it is in the client’s home or another place in the community. Services are available 24/7, and our clients have frequent, almost daily contacts with the team. Working in this field, I am well aware that our city does not adequately meet the needs of our homeless population, not before COVID-19, and not today.

But from a public health as well as a humanitarian standpoint, our city’s response to this crisis has been both abhorrent and dangerous. Many cities around the globe, from London to Los Angeles, have used now empty hotels to provide temporary housing for those in need, including those requiring quarantine. This strategy is effective because it allows those without homes to safely practice social distancing and hand hygiene, which many of us take for granted. The city of Louisville, however, has chosen another path: Overfull shelters ripe for spreading disease and a quarantine shelter for 100 sick, already medically compromised people, many whom will be suffering through withdrawals and/or mental illnesses.

The Salvation Army recently converted its Angel Tree warehouse into a facility dubbed, in an Orwellian fashion, “the Joy Center.” The facility consists of a large room of mattresses placed onto shelves. Imagine Home Depot with mattresses on the shelves instead of lumber and hard-ware, and you have an idea of the Joy Center. The facility will literally warehouse up to 100 people who have tested posi-tive for COVID-19.

Several people have described it to me as “worse than jail.” Those homeless and housing insecure who test positive and refuse to stay at the Joy Center, will go to regular jail, another highly dangerous environment already ripe for outbreaks and mistreatment. Louisville police have already arrested at least one person for this ostensible crime. The Salvation Army does amazing work every day, and its staff is on the front lines, risking their own health. I am sure that they are doing the very best they can. But they should never have been asked to make room for 100 people sick with a deadly virus.

Our city has subsidized luxury hotels for wealthy tourists, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, all while demolishing our public housing. Those hotels, funded in part by public funds, now sit nearly empty as we are ravaged by a public health crisis in which they should be utilized. This is yet another hallmark of a society that failed in the basic mandate for safety and justice. As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, I know that every single person deserves safe, affordable housing and a government that works for the many, not the few. We can’t afford an empty Omni Hotel while hundreds of our own people are sleeping on the street and will die on warehouse shelves.

I call on Mayor Greg Fischer to immediately provide temporary housing to all homeless Louisvillians for the duration of this crisis. Shelters are not a safe option and will lead to the further spread of COVID-19 throughout the city. In addition, all those charged with nonviolent offenses should be released from jail. We need Louisville to be a Solidarity City that acts in true compassion for all those who live here. It is the right thing to do and it is the logical thing to do if we want to stop the spread of this virus.

Mandy Bell is an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse and a board-certifi ed Advanced Practice Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner. This op-ed refl ects her views alone and not those of her employer.