James Brasuell of Planetizen has described homelessness as “the crisis within the crisis” of the COVID-19 outbreak. As with many other vulnerable communities, the pandemic has both drawn attention to and worsened many of the existing challenges that face people living on the street.
Not only is this community at a higher risk of both contracting and dying from the coronavirus, but their entire support system that allows them to meet their daily needs has been pulled out from under them.
In this dire context, public space managers can play a vital role in helping the people who usually frequent their places survive this crisis by collaborating with local social service organizations. Public space managers are experts in observation and experimentation, and with some courage, they can put these skills to good use in helping the most vulnerable people in their community.
To shine a light on what public space managers can do to help, earlier this month, Elena Madison, Director of Programs & Projects at Project for Public Spaces, hosted a two-part webinar series titled When “Stay at Home” Isn’t an Option: Public Spaces and Homelessness During COVID-19. The webinars featured a range of experts from Central Atlanta Progress and HOPE Atlanta in Atlanta, Georgia, and Community Access and Fountain House in New York City in a conversation about the challenges facing people without housing right now, and the role of public space in addressing them.
The following is a summary of some key takeaways from that conversation. You can watch our free COVID-19 webinars from the Past Webinars section on our Events page.
Reconnecting people to housing is a long road that often includes addressing other challenges like mental health and addiction in addition to providing a home. To start down that path requires a big leap of faith, especially for those who have lived homeless for years.
“You have to build a lot of trust,” says Steve Coe, former CEO of Community Access in New York City, “So the teams are out on the street, and going where people are. People go where they feel comfortable, where they feel safe. They might go to McDonalds or the Port Authority, so it’s important to send the teams there.”
Janika Robinson, a social worker with Hope Atlanta who works in Woodruff Park in Atlanta, agrees. “We build those relationships in the park, and then we just see them through. Sometimes I’m able to get them into the [Hope Atlanta] building and other times, I just have to come back out to the park, meet them where they are and get them what they need right there in the park.” This unique partnership between Hope Atlanta and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, a division of Central Atlanta Progress that manages Woodruff Park, has paid off. Over the past 18 months, Janika has placed 135 people into permanent housing.
During COVID-19, public space managers can play an even larger role in this task than usual. Ansley Whipple, the Woodruff Park Project Manager who works closely with Janika, feels like her mission has changed since the City implemented its lockdown order. “Normally our job is to balance the needs of all the audiences that are there,” says Whipple, “This is an interesting time because there’s really only one audience that’s currently there, which is the people who don’t have anywhere to shelter in place.”
Both in New York City and in Atlanta, panelists explained that their clients have been harder to locate. The regulars at Woodruff Park have gone underground, and when Janika asks her clients where they have been, they simply tell her, “I’ve got a spot.”
Likewise, Community Access has had a harder time finding their clients in New York City, but they have a hunch why: they have had to expand their daily geography to survive. Many of them have relied on the kindness of “trust agents,” as Elliott Madison, Program Director at New York's Fountain House, calls them—people they see regularly who work at a specific restaurant or shop—for food, money, a bathroom, or an outlet. Neighborhood residents and commuters who often have personal relationships with specific individuals, and who were a steady source of change, human connection, and simple recognition, are now off the streets. Without these many informal connections to those they trust, people experiencing homelessness have to travel further just to meet basic human needs.
For their smaller community of 2,200 clients, Fountain House has worked hard to keep these support systems intact. “While we focus on individuals as direct social service agencies, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the community, even if it’s a community that looks very alien to us,” says Elliott. “There hasn’t been enough attention on what happens when you disrupt a community of precarious people.”
While foot traffic in Woodruff Park is down, Janika described the difficulty of enforcing social distancing with her clients. They have put up signs, and she reminds them regularly, but the congregation continues.
“I think that this is something they’re a little more used to than we are because they’re in crisis mode a lot, used to having their health very at risk,” observes Ansley. “It’s been a process to understand how we can best serve them.”
In New York, Community Access has grappled with the safety of their frontline workers and their potential to spread the virus to their clients. Program Director Courtney Engelstein describes it as a “grey area,” a constant question of how to balance the benefits of their services with the risks of infection. One of the most important variables in this equation is access to personal protective equipment, like masks and sanitizer, which is desperately needed by both service organizations and their clients.
In both Atlanta and New York, food is one of the greatest needs for unhoused people right now, even with the risk of infection. In New York City for example, soup kitchens have closed down due to the virus, while food pantries are seeing a huge increase in demand from city residents who have lost income and employment.
However, when individuals or volunteer organizations have dropped off food in Woodruff Park, Janika has witnessed an uptick in crowding among the park’s regulars. Park ambassadors try to enforce physical distancing without much luck, and the people who drop off the food leave too quickly for ambassadors to speak with them.
Both the staff from Community Access and Janika Robinson recommend that anyone looking to help with food collaborate with the experts in their community who know how to distribute food safely, provide other services and connections, and who will continue to address the root causes of hunger as well.
Especially during a pandemic, everyone needs a place to wash their hands and bathe. Woodruff Park has a public restroom, which remains open, but as Ansley points out, a public restroom can also be a vector of transmission.
To help alleviate that risk, she is currently working with other organizations in Atlanta on providing mobile handwashing stations in the park. Janika hopes that providing readily available sanitation options like these could make a lasting change for people living outdoors.
Community Access agreed that every water fountain, sink, and bathroom counts right now. They also recommended that mobile shower units, like those provided by the Showers of Blessings Ministry, could help broaden access to sanitation during the pandemic.
During Janika’s usual rounds in Woodruff Park, she uses an iPad and cell phone to help her clients access resources and begin their path toward housing without having to enter an office or shelter. But as her usual contacts have scattered, she wishes that they were able to distribute phones so they could stay in touch.
In New York City, both Fountain House and Community Access acted quickly to distribute cell phones and plans to their clients, before the stores closed. With these new tools, Fountain House has been able to offer a virtual clubhouse for their members to continue to support one another, while Community Access is providing frontline telehealth services to advise their clients about when to seek medical assistance.
However, with these new belongings come problems for people who spend most of their time outdoors. Outlets and wifi in public space have become even more important, as businesses no longer allow people to linger. Theft also becomes a greater problem, and safe places to store personal belongings overnight are rare to begin with. Public space managers could provide these safe storage spots, even if it is simply an inexpensive locker. “As we become more and more reliant on different services that are available in our daily life,” says Beth Diesch, Assistant Program Director at Community Access, “We rely on parks increasingly to provide those services. When we don’t have access to them, it’s easy to feel lost.”
Elliott hopes that these new digital tools will have a lasting impact for outreach teams, who spend a lot of their time simply locating their clients. Digital tools can help improve this connectivity, but for many social service organizations, it often just comes down to cost.
The current “crisis within the crisis” did not come out of thin air. It is the product of years of disinvestment in social services, public health, and public space. “The City just passed several million dollars with funding for these efforts,” said Ansley Whipple, “But it’s a system that was underfunded to begin with, so it’s hard to just become extremely effective all of a sudden, even given a lot of money and resources.”
With massive unemployment, loss of income, rent strikes, and many of our neighbors unable to pay their rent, a potentially unprecedented housing crisis is looming ahead for many communities. What we need to remember is that the most vulnerable in our communities are the first to fall through the cracks, and they need the wrap-around services and a continuum of care to be able to obtain housing and keep it.
As lockdowns have become the new normal in much of the world, many outlets that usually ignore public space, have suddenly become eloquent advocates of its value. Yet, the role that public spaces—and the organizations that manage them—play in the lives of the most vulnerable members of our communities, like people experiencing homelessness, have been largely overlooked. This is especially alarming when so many cities have closed their public park systems and refuse to open additional street space to pedestrians.
In normal times, public spaces are the hubs of community that allow unhoused people to access food, hygiene, income, information, and emotional support. During this pandemic, that burden has fallen even more on parks, plazas, sidewalks, and other official public spaces as the broader public realm of indoor public spaces and “third places” has shut down.
While it is a great burden, we hope that more public space managers and municipal governments will take it on, and partner with social service organizations and people experiencing homelessness themselves to offer the support that is so needed right now and in the future.