A man living in a Center City homeless shelter died of the coronavirus on April 2 after an outbreak of the disease infected more than three dozen people at the facility, The Inquirer has learned.
The death occurred 10 days after the city violated federal protocol by breaking up a homeless encampment at the Convention Center and bringing some of its inhabitants into the shelter.
The man is the only known homeless person among 5,700 shelter residents in Philadelphia to die from COVID-19, city officials said. In a statement, they described the encampment as “dangerous" and said that moving people into the shelter was “absolutely the right thing to do,” a “humane intervention.”
A 46-year-old man who died was from Puerto Rico and had been living in Our Brother’s Place at 907 Hamilton St. since October 2016. He had suffered from various health conditions, “making him very vulnerable to the illness,” according to Misty Sparks, director of entry-level programs at Bethesda Project, a homeless service provider that operates the shelter for the City of Philadelphia. She declined to provide his name or other details.
After an unknown number of people were brought into Our Brother’s Place from the encampment on March 23 — the city says just a “handful” — 32 of 149 residents there contracted the coronavirus between March 26 and April 14, Sparks said. “Quarters were so tight, with people sleeping 18 inches apart,” she added. Five staff members also tested positive for the disease.
A day before the city broke up the encampment, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued a ruling saying: “Unless individual housing units are available, do not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19. ... This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
In a statement, city officials counted “8 outbreaks in our 41 shelters in the past six weeks,” with a total of 50 residents contracting the virus so far. That means 64% of all cases have occurred at Our Brother’s Place.
“My staff is out of its minds," said an advocate for Philadelphia’s homeless community. “They can’t believe how irresponsible the city has been. We’ve been lucky so far. But we’re petrified that the virus can spread through a congregant population like wildfire.”
Sparks had been asked by the city’s Office of Homeless Services to discuss the outbreak at Our Brother’s Place in a weekly telephone meeting with about 100 homeless-service providers and advocates on April 17.
While the city kept minutes of every previous meeting, it did not make available any record of the call in which Sparks described the death, a veteran homeless advocate said.
The advocate, like several others quoted in this article, was granted anonymity in exchange for frank assessments of events surrounding the death, and other related issues.
City officials took pains to “keep the death under wraps,” according to an advocate with decades of experience.
Last month, officials declined to confirm the death when The Inquirer initially asked about it.
Michael Hinson, president and COO of SELF, the largest provider of emergency housing in the city, said: “I cannot see any benefit for withholding information about this death. It helps to have this information so we can help those in the shelter system.”
Liz Hersh, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services, disputed the notion that officials were hiding the tragedy. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said. It simply “takes us a few days” to get information out, she said, adding, “We have been very transparent about what we’re doing.”
One advocate said that moving people who’d been living outside into Our Brother’s Place only to have someone die 10 days later “was almost cause and effect. At the time, we were like, ‘You can’t do this. It’s not safe.'”
Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director of Health and Human Services for the city, disputed the idea that moving people from the street hastened the virus to spread throughout the shelter.
“It’s a false correlation,” she said. “It’s a large shelter that tends to house older people” susceptible to illness, she said, adding there are no data to connect the COVID-19 status of those who’d been in the encampment to the men living in the shelter.
Addressing the apparent violation of CDC regulations, Gladstein said that the agency issued its guidance less than 24 hours before the encampment was dispersed. Meanwhile, the city had been working for six months to move people out of the encampment of 70 people that had spawned “criminal activity.” She added that it was important to bring people in from the cold.
David Fair, a member of the board of SELF and the deputy commissioner for AIDS in the Philadelphia Department of Public Health in the early 1980s, disagreed with the city’s decision-making.
“They were fully aware of the CDC ruling,” he said. “Everyone was. All they had to do was not bring people into the shelter. It’s not that complicated."
In a report she compiled, Sparks wrote that one man from the Convention Center encampment displayed symptoms of the virus — including a 101-degree fever — and was denied entry to Our Brother’s Place. In retrospect, advocates believe that others from the Convention Center who did move into the shelter might have been symptomatic.
The first known case of coronavirus in the shelter was discovered on March 26, three days after the encampment was closed, said Sparks, who added that the person had not come from the encampment.
Apart from the one death, Sparks said, 27 of the 32 in the shelter who contracted the virus have recovered. Three are still hospitalized, and one is in quarantine at the Holiday Inn Express.
The five staff members who became sick have recovered, Sparks said.
Other cities “more progressive”
For weeks, providers and advocates in the homeless community have been growing increasingly angry and frustrated with the city. They point to places such as San Francisco and Boston where homeless people living in shelters who are vulnerable to COVID-19 but not yet sick are quartered in hotels or dormitories to limit the spread of disease.
“Other cities are doing much more progressive things to protect the homeless,” Fair said.
Another advocate added: “I don’t get the city’s lack of urgency. This is not a question of whether food at the Holiday Inn Express is nutritious. This is about living or dying.”
City officials pointed out that Philadelphia hasn’t suffered a large number of deaths in shelters, proof that they’re doing things right by making facilities less dense.
Last week, the city announced that it would allow shelter residents who are over 65, with underlying conditions, and who have been exposed to the virus but are not yet sick, to live in 250 rooms of the Holiday Inn Express and the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott in Center City.
An advocate said the number is “well short in orders of magnitude to house those who would benefit.” Michael Hinson of SELF agreed: “There are tons of locations, like city buildings and churches, that the city has not yet fully utilized.”
Providers and advocates planned to send a letter to the city outlining their fears.
Meanwhile, those who live in shelters are growing more anxious.
“I’m 62, I’m diabetic, with heart trouble,” said a resident of a South Philadelphia shelter. "We sleep close, and I’m so afraid of this virus, especially for black men, who seem to catch it like it’s nothing.
“I’m scared, for real, for real.”
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.