Portland, Oregon – Outside the Oregon Convention Center (OCC) in downtown Portland, Oregon, there is a mobile shower with a wheelchair lift and a smokers' shelter, in which the new temporary residents of the huge building sit shoulder to shoulder. shoulder.
Inside, people spend their hours sitting or lying in numbered green military-style cribs, in a shared central area, divided by duct tape and hanging blue curtains. Residents say there is an eating area, large folding tables, tilted chairs to show that they have been cleaned and a single TV, whose remote control, said a resident, is maintained by the staff. Guests are not allowed inside; colored adhesive bracelets are checked on the front door. OCC officials declined Al Jazeera's request for a tour.
"The vibrations are pretty good for the most part," said Logan Staggs, a 19-year-old resident of the OCC. "They provide everything you need."
However, there is one thing Staggs doesn't like: the star-shaped constellations of tiny LED lights on the ceiling.
"When I went in there, the lights scared me," said Staggs. "There are no windows, so you can play with your biological clock."
For residents, the convention center's homeless shelters emerged in the United States since the coronavirus attack, these lights can symbolize the cavernous scale and the surreal nature of the environment – unprecedented, unpredictable and caused by a pandemic.
"There are only one million lights," said Kathleen Mortensen, 62, at the San Diego Convention Center (SDCC). "There is a resemblance to stars."
Warif Rahemtulla, 60, who is staying at the Fort Worth Convention Center (FWCC), said the lights help him relax. "It's like looking at the sky," added Rahemtulla. "If I can't sleep, I look up and I'm like wow, man. It's really cool."
As the impact of coronavirus grew in March, convention centers cut billions of dollars and events. Shelters for the homeless also began to close, as they could not meet the guidelines for social distance. The homeless care systems, working with public health officials, hoped that renovating the convention facilities in "non-congregated" shelters would allow for greater physical distance. Across the country, they moved thousands of people to an unknown number of shelters at convention centers, many of them buildings with gleaming glass and impressive gardens. While officials say the approach marked their best option for minimizing the effects of COVID-19 on the homeless population, critics fear that such massive endeavors could put them in the crosshairs of the coronavirus.
The Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) received requests from 31 states and an indigenous tribe for a total of $ 1.2 billion in funds for "eligible activities, including, but not limited to, non-congregated shelters," the agency said. .
FEMA told Al Jazeera that the funds are for "medical and health-related needs" and "may include" homeless individuals, but the agency did not say how the $ 1.2 billion was specifically allocated.
It is not clear how many of these shelters are located within the convention centers. FEMA "does not track" the number or locations of shelters for the homeless that it finances within convention centers, a spokesman said. FEMA referred Al Jazeera to the Housing and Urban Development agency, which did not respond to requests for comment.
– Gary Warth (@GaryWarthUT) April 8, 2020
The San Diego Convention Center alone has 1,135 people and is growing, while about 328 people sleep on average at the FWCC and 120 in Oregon.
Many of the "federal medical sites" for coronavirus can also be thought of as de facto shelters for the homeless.
Inside the Boston Convention Center, at the Boston Hope Medical Center, for people recovering from COVID-19, more than half, or 97, of its 187 patients are homeless, according to the head of health and human services Marty Martinez.
The vast majority of people living in convention centers are referred from existing shelters, although some shelters, such as the SDCC, later opened their doors to sheltered homeless people. All centers require health checks on admission. Residents must wear adhesive bracelets and can leave.
In turn, residents are served food, according to nearly a dozen residents who spoke to Al Jazeera from shelters at the San Diego, Portland and Fort Worth convention centers.
"The food can't be beat," said David, a 70-year-old resident of the OCC shelter who declined to give his surname, Al Jazeera. "I haven't eaten this in decades."
Public health concerns
Little is easy in these shelters, however. Authorities used the parking lot at the Las Vegas, Nevada convention center to provide "shelter". In Cincinnati, Ohio, pink yoga mats were used as beds. In Oregon, Texas and California, residents sleep in facilities that can cover 14 city blocks.
"This is all new and somewhat strange," said Denis Theriault, an OCC spokeswoman. A website leader and recently hired former data analyst there, Peter Tiso, said: "We are learning a lot".
Public health experts expressed concern about the shelters at the convention centers. Margot Kushel, director of the vulnerable populations center at the University of California at San Francisco, said the idea that these shelters prevent infections is "magical thinking".
"You are sharing bathrooms," Kushel told Al Jazeera. "You can't keep people six feet away."
Eric Tars, legal director of the National Legal Center on Homelessness and Poverty, agreed.
"All of these facilities are violating the CDC's guidelines to avoid large meetings," he said.
The homeless have a high incidence of what medical professionals call "comorbidities": risk factors, such as serious health problems, struggles in mental health or addictions that make them particularly vulnerable, experts say.
Norway's public health expert Svenn-Erik Mamelund said that socioeconomic status has been neglected in responses to public health. His study of deaths in the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic found "the first wave hits the poor, the second wave hits the rich".
"I am really very concerned that, in the end, it will be the poorest sectors of society that will pay the greatest burden of [coronavirus] mortality, as we have seen in history, "said Mamelund.
The SDCC recently saw its first two positive COVID-19 tests, while the FWCC had five, but it currently does not have one. At the OCC, county officials refused to share numbers. None of them had outbreaks, but there were some in homeless shelters, including one in the Seattle area, built to lessen crowds.
David said that in Portland the cough is "out of control".
OCC shelter spokesman Theriault said residents are taken to motels for isolation if they have a "new", "getting worse" or "different" cough.
Although the centers are not ideal, public health experts admit that there is no simple solution.
"It is almost impossible to manage the homeless crisis in a pandemic," said Kushel.
In the shelters of the convention center, local authorities say that facilities are the best option, under the circumstances.
"They were already in our shelters, so we had to take quick action to ensure that physical distance was achieved," said Ashley Bailey, a San Diego city spokesman. "So, the convention center is the best option."
The authorities created hand-washing stations and mobile showers, hired employees, additional screening procedures, transportation to hotels and isolation programs. They said they are doing their best to keep vulnerable people – and the entire population – safe.
"This is what they are used to," said Richard Zavala, director of Parks and Rec in the city of Fort Worth, responsible for the FWCC shelter. "We are only temporary, we are not going to operate permanently. We don't want to institutionalize it."
Theriault said that "the best public health practice would be for people to have homes" and "anything else that comes up is our best harm reduction approach".
Federal housing officials agree, saying "private individual rooms" are the preferred approach to shelters for pandemics, while "shared spaces" are the least ideal.
In Fort Worth, 39 individuals housed in RV who tested positive for COVID-19; 10 RVs provide insulation. In Portland, 17 people are on two hotel isolation programs. San Diego is offering hotel rooms to some, says Bailey, "but this scenario is not ideal for everyone."
Zavala draws on his experience managing hurricane shelters, he said. While SDCC and OCC residents can stay all day, Zavala raises residents, feeds them breakfast burritos and takes them out at 7 am. They can return at 4pm.
There are other differences. In Portland, couples can set up a crib; FWCC and SDCC separate the sexes. At four months pregnant, Lori Pena left bed 126 in San Diego because she couldn't be around her boyfriend.
"I want to protect my pregnancy," said Pena, 34. "We are trying the best we can now to be together and keep our little family safe."
It is unclear how long these convention center shelters will be open. Traditional shelters are often well spaced and cannot return to capacity until the social distance guidelines are no longer in place. "It’s the state and local health departments that are really leading the program," University of California at San Francisco Kushel said.
In Texas, the first phase of the governor's reopening plan went into effect on Friday. Zavala estimates that the downtown Fort Worth shelter will be open for another month or two.
"Everything depends on orders from the governor, in addition to pandemic trends and health professionals," he said.
It may also depend on the greatest unknown of all: the 30 million newly unemployed Americans. How many will lose their homes and how much could the current number of half a million homeless people grow, especially in cities and states that already face accessible housing crises?
Despite the challenges and remaining issues, the authorities are optimistic and residents have also found reasons for gratitude.
In San Diego, said Mortensen, the new clothes are placed in plastic bags in a crib at 2 pm daily, and "they don't lose a sock". In Portland, "we all kind of support each other," said Rubin, 23, refusing to give a surname.
"This one [pandemic] it's the worst experience of my life. I'm going through hell, actually, "said Rahemtulla, who is employed and has plans to return to housing." If it weren't for the convention center, I don't know what I would do. "