Are We Prepared for Flu Pandemic Within Shelters?

Commentary by Josh Kanary

Currently, the Cleveland Department of Public Health and the Cuyahoga County Board of Health provide information on their websites for the H1N1 flu outbreak geared towards specific populations, including elderly, children and the disabled. However, no information is provided that specifically addresses unique problems that arise in Cleveland’s homeless community.

Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries’ 2100 Lakeside Men’s Shelter houses nearly 400 people every night in close quarters. These 400 people share the same showers, restrooms, laundry facilities, and meal area. They sleep in bunk beds that leave little personal space between one bed and the next. Should one resident become infected, the virus would easily jump from one person to the next, and then in the morning, the shelter closes down and sends these 300 of the 400 people out into the public. Some sort of plan or set guidelines must be made available in order to assure this potential disaster can be handled as efficiently as possible.

Los Angeles, Seattle, Indiana and Vancouver have made guides available for addressing the handling of a pandemic in their local homeless communities. Seattle, in particular, released a 32-page plan that details what the city, the county, and the service providers are responsible for. It offers not only an explanation of how to care for sick individuals and prevent its spread, but it also provides guidelines for continuation of service, instructions for what to train staff for, local resources for stockpiling emergency supplies, how best to keep sick and healthy people separate in a close quarters environment, how to handle confidentiality/HIPAA issues, what the city/county is taking care of, and the importance of collaboration and communication between service providers.

Although the above resources are readily available on the internet, something needs to be put in place locally to keep all government and non-profit agencies on the same page. It is difficult to struggle to survive without a home, but at this time we do not have a plan to meet the health emergency during an epidemic. Confining people in a shelter environment in the midst of a pandemic is a death sentence.

Josh Kanary is the former Outreach Coordinator for the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless in Cleveland, Ohio.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue #87 in July 2009 in Cleveland Ohio.