By Heather Wright
You’re an essential employee who tests positive for COVID-19. Your father, who lives with you, is immunocompromised, but you’re barely scraping by and can’t afford a hotel room.
“One of the reasons people are homeless right now [is] because they test positive, or they get symptomatic, and they need to quarantine,” explained Community Crisis Services, Inc. (CCSI) Executive Director Timothy Jansen in a July 23 interview. “They don’t want to put everyone else in their home at risk.”
CCSI’s business offices are based in Hyattsville, although they don’t meet clients there. Among other services, CCSI has a 24-hour Homeless Hotline (211 or 1.888.731.0999) that county residents on the verge of homelessness can call.
Jansen said that their priority is to first save someone’s housing through means that include helping to solve legal issues, facilitating mediation or linking to rental assistance.
“We are certainly ready, willing and able to provide shelter, but we want shelter to be the last option,” said Jansen. “So we try really diligently to help folks stay where they are.”
CCSI coordinates emergency placements at the county’s five shelters, one of which — Safe Passage — is specifically for individuals who have experienced domestic violence. In addition to coordinating placements, CCSI also runs two of those shelters — Safe Passage and one that opened during the pandemic.
Pre-pandemic, CCSI worked with churches to provide pop-up shelters for a program called Warm Nights, which provided housing to about 30 people a night on average. With the onset of COVID-19 and resulting regulations, CCSI worked with the county to open a facility that could house about 300 people.
This shelter has a wing reserved for people who test positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms of the disease. The wing has its own entrance, is staffed by certified nursing assistants and is run “according to CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] guidelines to provide appropriate shelter for those with COVID diagnoses or those under quarantine,” noted Jansen. So if you were that essential worker living with your immunocompromised father, you might very well have a place to go.
“I do believe that Tim Jansen does an amazing job with Warm Nights and his homeless prevention programs,” said County Councilmember Deni Taveras (Ward 2). “He provides a steady hand and steady leadership.”
At the shelters, residents receive case management to help them address issues that can lead to homelessness. Mental health counseling, job coaching, and transportation and employment assistance are some of the services that the shelters provide. Jansen gave an example of a shelter resident who was hired by Metro in mid-July but was hesitant to accept the position because of a lack of childcare. CCSI worked to link her to childcare so that she could take the job.
Access to rental assistance can be a key piece of addressing homelessness. Through a partnership with Hyattsville Community Development Corporation (HyCDC), the City of Hyattsville has made $300,000 available as $1,500 emergency grants to support eligible Hyattsville residents with rent, mortgage, utilities and other qualifying expenses. As of Aug. 3, according to an email from HyCDC Executive Director Stuart Eisenberg, 74 grants had been awarded, 75 applications were still in pre-review processing, and funds were available for more than 125 grants.
The county has set aside approximately $5 million in emergency rental assistance, according to Taveras. The COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program opened for applications on May 11 and had to close May 18 due to overwhelming demand, receiving over 7,000 applications in just seven days. As of July 24, 187 applications had been cleared for payment and $593,216 had been released, said Taveras, citing a Department of Housing and Community Development report. CCSI processes these applications, according to Jansen, and then forwards them to the county for remittance.
The county has worked to bring in people who were on the streets and homeless prior to the pandemic. Jansen noted, “The county did a really beautiful job doing outreach into some of the encampments and into the woods and all those places where some of the chronically homeless have resided and worked very diligently to bring them into shelter … to protect them from COVID.”
According to Jansen, Prince George’s County committed to “no turnaways” of those seeking shelter during the pandemic. Taveras said that in addition to emergency shelters, hotel rooms are being used as temporary housing.
As of Aug. 4, no one had been turned away from county shelters since March 1, according to Jansen.
Still, he expressed deep concern for the future, as the pandemic and its economic impacts continue: “I’m terrified, honestly, that the fall and winter are going to be horrible.”
Jansen has been encouraged, though, by how the community has come together during the crisis to support the county’s homeless. Individual donations to CCSI have increased by about 200% since May. The Greater Washington Community Foundation donated $100,000 in early April to help during the pandemic. And Jansen credited Pizzeria Paradiso for “the amazing number of meals they’ve donated.”
“We’re all in this, and no matter how wonderful your world might be, there are moments when we all struggle,” said Jansen. “So it’s really important that we take care of each other and that we reach out when we need help.”
If you can give assistance, consider donating to, or volunteering with, CCSI (communitycrisis.org); or donating to the City of Hyattsville’s Community Action Fund: COVID-19 Relief and Assistance Grant program (hycdc.org/support-the-covid-relief-fund).