Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Daniel Schroeder and Ariana Kmecak believed they were on track to get their lives back — the house, the job, the recovery.
The death of their infant son had upended them just months before. In August, at only 5 days old, Jax Schroeder had died of meconium aspiration syndrome, a birth complication that, in rare cases, can be fatal.
In their grief, Schroeder and Kmecak, who were years into recovery from opioid addiction and thrilled to be parents, relapsed. By that winter, the couple were homeless on the streets of Kensington.
Over the next few months, they cobbled together a shaky support system: rest at drop-in centers for homeless people during the day, earn money by trash-picking, get food from the many outreach programs that handed out meals in the neighborhood. In February, they started suboxone, the addiction-treatment drug that helps people with opioid addiction quell cravings. “One big positive step,” Schroeder, 37, said.
But when the virus hit, that support system crumbled virtually overnight. Food programs dwindled. Drop-in centers were forced to close their doors because patrons could not safely socially distance inside. Now the couple spent their days walking for hours to pass the time.
One evening last week, Kmecak, 28, sat down on Kensington Avenue, all her belongings next to her in a bag. Before the virus, she would have stopped in at one of the avenue’s drop-in centers. But now, exhausted, she fell asleep — and woke up to find her bag gone, stolen.
Kmecak’s heart dropped. Inside the bag, she had been carrying the small urn that held her son’s ashes.
A slow city response
Kmecak and Schroeder’s experiences over the last month mirror those of others on the street as the pandemic has changed Philadelphia. City officials have scrambled to find ways to help the city’s most vulnerable populations — the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill — as the virus spreads.
But a month into the pandemic, many of those efforts are still getting off the ground, and advocates say not nearly enough is being done for people who don’t have a home to quarantine in.
A 168-bed quarantine center at a Holiday Inn in Center City, which the city is renting for $170,000 a month, is limited only to people who test positive for COVID-19 or are showing symptoms. The city expects to open a second quarantine site at a Fairfield Inn in Philadelphia on Wednesday.
Neither site has the medical staff necessary to quarantine people with significant medical needs, or serious mental illnesses or addictions that make it difficult to stay in one place. Other large medical facilities, like the Liacouras Center field hospital at Temple University, are also off-limits to people with serious behavioral or addiction issues.
Quarantining people "with the most difficult and challenging behaviors — for those suffering mental illness or maybe in the throes of [addiction withdrawal] — we have not resolved that issue, which is not to any of our satisfaction,” said Brian Abernathy, the city managing director.
“These are incredibly difficult times for all of us, and I think the city is doing everything we can to provide support and safety nets for not just our shelter population but everyone. I’m not going to deny any of the criticisms — we haven’t done enough. That’s fair. But the fact that the city is the only one providing the resources says a lot about our current systems as well.”
Liz Hersh, the director of the office of homeless services, echoed Abernathy: “I think [the pandemic has] really shone a bright light on these deep inequities and really these huge fissures in our society, that we have all these people who can’t provide this basic care for themselves."
Last month, city officials said they were looking to set up a 24-hour drop-in center in Kensington for homeless people with addiction who cannot quarantine. That hasn’t happened yet. COVID-19 testing services in the neighborhood, which has one of the highest homeless populations in the city, were set up only last week, nearly a month after the city’s first public testing site opened in South Philadelphia.
The city’s shelters have had to decrease capacity to allow people to safely socially distance. Shelters for families and women are 90% full; men’s shelter capacity varies day by day, and Hersh said the city has kept open beds that are normally reserved for the winter months to try to get more people safely inside.
Now homeless outreach workers are contending with their clients’ fear of the virus as well as their fear of remaining outside.
“They’re talking about their fears about what’s going on. For the most part, they want somewhere to go. They need somewhere to go,” said Yulanda Fitzgerald, acting administrator at the Roosevelt Darby Center, a homeless intake site on North Broad Street that places people in shelter beds. “We try to do our best [to comfort them].”
At the center last Friday, about 15 men sat slumped in hard plastic chairs, waiting for appointments with a social worker. Everyone wore a mask. Instead of meeting face to face, clients sat in a cubicle and talked over a speaker phone with the center’s staff — who were sitting in their own cubicles, one floor up.
“Where did you stay last night?” a security guard asked an older man clutching a change of clothes in a plastic bag. He replied, “The hospital.”
Hoping for a home
Some people on the street, like Schroeder and Kmecak, are still wary of the shelter system — especially during the pandemic. Four shelters in the city’s system have seen coronavirus outbreaks, Abernathy said, although no one currently in city shelters is positive for the virus. Emergency shelter for couples is generally hard to come by, and Schroeder and Kmecak say they are afraid of being split up in separate shelters.
“It’s hard even without the virus to find a couple’s shelter,” Schroeder, who’s originally from Philadelphia, said. (Kmecak is from Johnstown, Pa., where the couple met.) “And we’re always together. We don’t want to break the team up. But we would love to have a home base."
Though the pandemic has changed their lives, they’re trying to maintain a sense of routine. They walk. They try to trash-pick for cash. They’re hoping to scrounge up enough money for a few nights in a hotel room, if they can find one that’s open. They want to find jobs but are unsure how to apply or get to work with nowhere to rest, or shower, or store their belongings.
And they have been searching for their son’s ashes, asking anyone in Kensington who might have come across the urn — a small blue box, shaped like a heart.
Staff writer Mike Newall contributed to this article.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.