Officials plan for coronavirus response among Chattanooga's vulnerable homeless population

Staff photo by Tim Barber/ A guard and others wait outside the homeless health care center at 730 E. 11th St.

While the city continues to implement measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including shutting down restaurants and gyms, local leaders are preparing to respond to an outbreak of the coronavirus among one of the city's most vulnerable populations.

On Friday, Mayor Andy Berke announced the plan for addressing coronavirus concerns in the homeless community.

"People who are living on the streets have some of the most serious underlying conditions and so we have to make sure that they are supported in the best possible way and also that those who are interacting with homeless individuals in our community are being safe as well," Berke said.

The plan, involving more than a dozen local groups, combines city, county and nonprofit resources to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness. According to the plan, the city's Homeless Services Division will continue doing street outreach to share public health information, as well as look for symptoms of COVID-19. The five workers can also provide a two-week supply of food for people experiencing symptoms but who choose to self-isolate in encampments throughout the county.

According to the latest point-in-time count, there are 181 people experiencing homelessness not in the shelter system and 463 total. The city is focusing prevention and mitigation efforts to meet the needs of the entire unsheltered population. However, none of the 90 unsheltered people visited in the past week by city workers showed symptoms of the coronavirus, said Tyler Yount, director of special projects for the mayor's office.

"We are basically assuming that everybody will eventually and trying to plan with that assumption built in, to plan for the worst case," he said.

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Possible cases of the coronavirus will be reported to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department Homeless Healthcare Center and individuals will be asked to quarantine.

The local homeless community faces a particular risk since many are older and have pre-existing conditions, such as hypertension and respiratory illness, said Karen Quinn, senior public health nurse with the Homeless Health Care Center.

Nurses are talking to patients about how to prevent the coronavirus during primary care visits to the center and anyone experiencing respiratory disease symptoms is asked to wear a mask. The center, which treated 4,200 people in 2019, is prepared to switch to focusing on COVID-19 if necessary, Quinn said.

How to help

The Homeless Services Division is asking for donations to help stop the possible spread of the coronavirus among people experiencing homelessness in Chattanooga. The group is asking for hand sanitizer, soap, gloves and personal hygiene products. Donations can be dropped off at 1714 Duncan Ave. between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.

"With our job responsibilities, we reminded our staff to be flexible, because we may need to change over our jobs to be whatever the public health threat is," she said. "Right now we're focused on primary care in meeting basic needs for people that may be in crisis."

The preventative action of self-isolating, taken by thousands of Chattanooga residents this week, is nearly impossible among the people experiencing homelessness. They do may not have access to areas to wash or places to self-isolate. Local resources are consolidated geographically, forcing individuals to come in close contact with one another to receive the food or health care they need to survive.

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In the event of a series of positive COVID-19 cases, the area's already burdened shelter system is unlikely to have space to have space to quarantine people.

The health department is currently evaluating the Salvation Army as a possible quarantine site for confirmed COVID-19 cases, said Maj. Mark Smith of the Salvation Army. Smith said he offered the facility because many in the homeless community are already familiar with the space.

Cities across the country have rented hotel rooms to allow people to self-isolate or quarantine. This could be an option in Chattanooga, Yount said. Last week there were 140 vacant rooms at various extended stay hotels, he said.

"We know that's an option but taking people to those rooms without having people to check in on them and care for them can be dangerous," Yount said.

The barrier in treating a possible outbreak among the homeless, regardless of where they are quarantined, will be finding medical staff to monitor anyone showing symptoms, he said. The city's plan remains a working document and the plan still requires the donations of food and sanitation supplies, as well as an additional quarantine location for patients.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.