The other day, a client outside the Catholic Worker Free Clinic in Kensington asked physician assistant Katie Huynh an impossible question: Amid the coronavirus pandemic, was it safer to sleep in a shelter or on the street?

“I had to tell them it’s safer, for the coronavirus, to sleep on the street. So I think that we’re going to see a lot more people avoiding shelters,” she said. “But then, that leaves you vulnerable for more violence, that you’ll be injured physically or have your belongings stolen.”

That’s just one of many unprecedented strains that coronavirus containment efforts have heaped on Philadelphia’s patchwork safety net of homeless services — from soup kitchens where hospitality had until now involved a sit-down meal to shelters where beds are normally packed closer than the CDC-recommended six-foot radius, and to outreach workers who are accustomed to extending a helping hand.

Providers across the city have had to overhaul and, in many cases, drastically curtail their programs, struggling with the reality that social distancing isn’t built into their service models.

The city, meanwhile, is rushing to ramp up shelter capacity and food distribution, to continue serving an estimated 5,700 homeless residents, including 950 unsheltered.

Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy said officials are still touring sites in search of what will be “a quarantine space for those who may suspect that they are infected with the virus.” He expected that site to be open by the end of the week.

And the nonprofit Project HOME has assigned a dedicated outreach team outfitted in protective gear to transport anyone displaying symptoms of the coronavirus, said the organization’s leader, Sister Mary Scullion.

Nonprofits are making difficult decisions about whether and how to accept donations and volunteer help, in efforts to limit workers on site and avoid risking exposing more people to contagion.

At the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission just north of Center City, a sign posted on the door warned that “there will be no new shelter admissions until further notice.” Other signs cited a long list of canceled services: meals for anyone not staying in the shelter already, health clinics, afternoon showers, and case management.

Signs posted at the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission near Center City Philadelphia describe the list of service cuts during the coronavirus pandemic. No new guests are being admitted, and non-guests are barred from meals.
Signs posted at the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission near Center City Philadelphia describe the list of service cuts during the coronavirus pandemic. No new guests are being admitted, and non-guests are barred from meals.

At the Broad Street Ministry, a South Broad Street center whose “radical hospitality” approach normally includes table service in a soaring church sanctuary, executive director Mike Dahl has been forced to move to take-out food and to suspend all services except mail delivery.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Dahl, “for an organization that prides itself on hospitality.”

He was wearing rubber gloves and had sent home all but a skeleton staff. “We’re back to the basics. We’re not doing the long-term work of taking care of people. We’re just trying to address the most immediate suffering.”

St. Francis Inn, which provides sit-down meals to people in Kensington, is now packing food to go, asking guests not to crowd in line, and closing off its courtyard, normally a gathering place. It divided staff into two teams: younger workers who might have more exposure and older people who are limiting their contact.

“Our slogan has been: ‘For now, not forever.’ That’s what we’ve been telling our guests,” said Tom Schlinck, 23, a Franciscan volunteer minister. “Some of the guests have gotten upset. The reason we serve restaurant style is we want to emphasize human dignity, and with the changes we’ve had to make, some of that gets compromised.”

Crowd management was also a prime concern at Hub of Hope, the outreach post in Suburban Station, which cut hours, staggered clients, and installed hand-washing stations.

In Kensington, the sidewalk outside Prevention Point Philadelphia was still a hive of activity Tuesday, though the public-health organization had halted programs including its daytime drop-in center and was conducting services mostly outside.

Essential programs like the syringe exchange, mail services, public bathrooms, addiction treatment, and treatment for HIV and hepatitis C remain open, and the organization is giving out more of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone than ever.

And an Amazon wish list for donations resulted in an outpouring of support.

We have received so much support from people all across the country in only three days. THANK YOU to everyone who is...

Posted by Prevention Point Philadelphia on Wednesday, 18 March 2020

But one thorny problem is articulating conflicting public-health messages that now include social distancing — yet still warn against using drugs alone, given the risk of fatal overdose.

“That is one of the tragic aspects of this,” said Silvana Mazzella, Prevention Point’s associate executive director. “All we can do is inform people of their risk.”

At the Catholic Worker Free Clinic, where the waiting room is normally a bustling daytime hangout, only one client was being admitted at a time.

“We’ve basically moved our waiting room outside," said Mary Beth Appel, 60, standing on the sidewalk as clients signed in on a clipboard.

Routine care, like blood-pressure checks, has been reduced — a hardship for people who come in not only for health care, but also for a moment of being touched and treated like a human being. One client told staff, “I don’t feel like a person. I feel like a disease.”

A file photo shows meal service at St. Francis Inn. The dining room is now empty to avoid spreading the coronavirus.
A file photo shows meal service at St. Francis Inn. The dining room is now empty to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

She said this week has been quiet. But like many other providers, she expects more people will need services given the growing number of coronavirus layoffs.

Yet those living on the street and in shelters did not seem panicked. Several expressed frustration that the places they once relied on — like libraries and drop-in centers — are now off-limits.

Jessica, 32, who declined to give her last name, said the coronavirus sounded like not “that big of a deal. It’s a cold.” She was huddled outside St. Francis Inn on Tuesday, waiting for lunch.

Still, she was irritated by the ubiquitous advice to wash hands and stay at home. “We’re trying to stay clean. But we don’t have hand sanitizer and toilet paper. You can’t put people inside who don’t have a home. We can’t quarantine.”

Michael Fisher, 57, who has been staying at a Bethesda Project shelter in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church., felt secure. He said there is plenty of space, and residents have been supplied with hand sanitizer and disinfectant cleaners.

“I even got rubber gloves in my bag,” said Fisher. His main concern with the coronavirus isn’t his health, but that the disruption may stymie progress on his housing application.

Huynh, the Catholic Worker clinic volunteer, said the calm her clients exude has helped her adjust to the reality of a pandemic.

“A lot of patients are taking this in stride. This is a population that lives day to day. People here live in crisis,” she said. “So it’s a sense of learning from people who are used to insecurity to the idea that you never know what’s going to happen next week.”

Staff writers Aubrey Whelan, Mike Newall, and Laura McCrystal 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.