Biden administration to distribute more than 25 million masks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration will deliver more than 25 million masks to community health centers, food pantries and soup kitchens this spring as part of its battle against the coronavirus pandemic, the White House said on Wednesday.

U.S. health authorities recommend mask wearing as a critical measure to help slow the spread of disease and the White House said low-income Americans still don’t have access to masks.

The government will deliver the masks to more than 1,300 community health centers and 60,000 food pantries and soup kitchens between March and May, the White House said.

The masks are expected to reach between 12 million and 15 million Americans, it said.

Democratic President Joe Biden issued a mask mandate when he took office in January as the pandemic raged on, requiring masks and physical distancing in all federal buildings and the development of a testing program for federal employees for COVID-19.

Shortly afterward, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a sweeping order requiring the use of face masks on nearly all forms of public transportation.

The White House said two-thirds of the people served by community health Centers live in poverty, 60% are racial and/or ethnic minorities, and nearly 1.4 million are homeless.

“These masks will be no cost, high-quality, washable, and consistent with the mask guidance from the CDC. All of these masks will be made in America, and will not impact availability of masks for health care workers,” the statement said.

(Reporting by Makini Brice and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Thirteen dead, thousands homeless in southern Africa after storm Eloise

By Kirthana Pillay and Emma Rumney

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – The death toll from storm Eloise rose to at least 13 on Monday after heavy winds, rain and flooding destroyed buildings, drowned crops and displaced thousands in parts of southern Africa.

Eloise weakened from a cyclone to a tropical storm after making landfall in central Mozambique on Saturday, but continued to dump rain on Zimbabwe, eSwatini – formerly known as Swaziland – South Africa and Botswana.

Six people were killed in Mozambique, the country’s National Institute for Disaster Risk Management and Reduction (INGD) reported, while the number of displaced people rose to more than 8,000, with thousands of homes wrecked or flooded.

A five-year-old child was killed in South Africa’s eastern Mpumalanga province after being swept away, said George Mthethwa, head of communications for the provincial department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs.

In neighboring Limpopo, fast-flowing rivers destroyed a makeshift bridge, leaving people hoping to cross stranded on either side. Others waded through the knee-high flood waters.

The death toll stood at two in eSwatini, according to police. Three people had been reported killed in Zimbabwe and one in Madagascar.

“Rainfall is starting to ease off slowly,” said Puseletso Mofokeng, senior forecaster at the South African Weather Service, adding there was still a risk of localized flooding as more rain was expected on saturated ground.

Zimbabwe’s national water authority also warned that dams were spilling over and could cause floods further downstream.

Following Cyclone Idai in 2019, rainwater flowed from Zimbabwe back into Mozambique causing devastating floods. Over 1,000 people died across the region, with the impoverished coastal nation bearing the brunt.

Eloise struck an area still recovering from that devastation and already flooded in parts.

Evacuations, warnings and higher community awareness have led to a much lower death toll, but some temporary camps, where evacuees were taken, have been cut off.

Sergio Dinoi, head of the advisory team in Mozambique for the U.N.’s humanitarian arm, said groups were venturing out, in some cases via boat, on Monday to assess the damage.

(Reporting by Emma Rumney and Kirthana Pillay in Johannesburg; Additional reporting by Manuel Mucari in Maputo, Macdonald Dzirutwe in Harare and Lunga Masuku in Mbabane, editing by Ed Osmond)

Honduras hurricanes push thousands into homelessness

By Jose Cabezas

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (Reuters) – Willian Castro and his family huddled on the roof of a banana packing plant for three days as Hurricane Eta raged last month, seeking to escape the torrential rains and floods that swept through his home and thousands of others.

His city of San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras was one of the areas worst hit by Eta and Hurricane Iota, which struck just two weeks later, deepening the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic in Central America.

Castro, 34, worked as a barber from his home, which was destroyed in the storms. He is now considering following thousands of Hondurans before him who saw emigration north as a way out of poverty.

“We will have to start over,” he said. “We can’t do it alone. If not, I’ll have to think about what many have done in the past, go to the United States.”

For now, Castro is living in a friend’s house near San Pedro Sula. Private organizations have given his family food, and neighbors who receive remittances from relatives in the United States have also helped.

“The government has not given us anything,” Castro said.

Julissa Mercado, a spokeswoman for government disaster agency COPECO, said the area around San Pedro Sula received food aid, but that it was inevitable that some people would say they had not received assistance.

Nationwide, some 4.5 million people – half the Honduran population – have been impacted by the hurricanes and their aftermath, including landslides and rain that submerged entire communities, the government said. More than 85,200 homes were damaged and 6,100 destroyed.

In Castro’s old neighborhood, the accumulated rainwater is a meter high in some areas, and downed power poles and trees, furniture and appliances still clutter the streets.

Some 95,000 people in San Pedro Sula have taken refuge in shelters. Thousands of others sleep each night in flimsy sheds made of wood and plastic sheets, on sidewalks or under bridges.

President Juan Orlando Hernandez has called for help from other nations. “It’s the worst disaster that we have experienced in the history of the Republic of Honduras,” he said on Thursday at an event recognizing first responders.

Even before the twin storms, which also killed 100 people, Honduras was expecting an economic contraction of 10.5% this year due to the pandemic.

“After losing their homes, assets and even their jobs, people who were already poor are now even worse off,” said Nelson Garcia, director of the Mennonite Social Action Commission (CASM), a human rights organization.

(Reporting by Jose Cabezas and Gustavo Palencia; Writing by Adriana Barrera, Editing by Daina Beth Solomon and John Stonestreet)

Woman living in her car brings sandwiches, love to the homeless of Houston

(Reuters) – Dominick SeJohn Walton spots a man with a shopping cart piled high with belongings and a sign that says “Homeless. Please Help” under a Texas highway overpass. With the coronavirus keeping many at home, the road is quieter than usual.

FILE PHOTO: Dominick Walton, who is homeless herself, leaves food bags for homeless people amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Houston, Texas, U.S., April 19, 2020. REUTERS/Go Nakamura

She hands him a plastic bag filled with a baloney and cheese sandwich, cookies, and applesauce. On the outside she has written in permanent blue marker: ‘God Bless. Jesus loves you. I love you!’

Walton knows what it is like to be homeless and hungry. She is currently living mainly in her car, sleeping at her sister’s apartment in Houston sometimes.

“I started serving meals to the homeless because I understand what it’s like not to know where your next meal is going to come from and that’s the least that I feel like we can do for our community is to give back,” said the 27-year-old.

Walton’s car became her home after she became depressed following surgery for an ectopic pregnancy. She quit her job as a gas station cashier and is now living in the 2010 Chevrolet Malibu, trying to save enough money to start a t-shirt business featuring her own designs. She was recently hired by a non-profit organization that distributes meals to low-income families.

In many U.S. cities, homeless people are spending their nights on empty trains, or camping behind closed businesses and under deserted highways. Many fear to enter homeless shelters, where the coronavirus can spread fast.

Walton drives around and spots a man sitting on the ground.

“Hello sir,” she calls out, her big smile hidden behind the surgical mask she wears. He does not respond, perhaps dozing, so she touches his elbow with her gloved hand to give him some food.

FILE PHOTO: Dominick Walton, who is homeless, sleeps in her car amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Houston, Texas, U.S., April 26, 2020. REUTERS/Go Nakamura

Walton buys the groceries herself or uses leftovers from her employer, making the bags in her sister’s apartment, where her 1-year-old and 4-year-old nieces play.

When she is done for the day, she parks her car near a mall, park, or just a quiet neighborhood, propping her cellphone against the car window while she stretches out in the front seat.

Her dreams: A t-shirt business so successful that she can give away even more food.

(Reporting by Go Nakamura; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Race for space to house vulnerable in coronavirus

By Zoe Tabary

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – “Stay home” – that’s the message stretching from Italy to Iran as the world tries to contain coronavirus. But what if you’ve got no place to call home, or your house is out of bounds in the pandemic?

Some 1.8 billion people worldwide are homeless or live in inadequate housing, experts say, calling for urgent measures to ensure the most vulnerable get sanctuary in the outbreak.

Thousands more need a temporary place to live, either to stay close to crisis centres at the core of the coronavirus fightback or to keep housemates infection-free during weeks of lockdown.

Worldwide, the respiratory disease – which emerged last year in China – has infected more than 490,000 people and the death toll tops 22,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.

“Housing has become the front line defence against the coronavirus, said Leilani Farha, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. “Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation.”

To that end, officials are scouring cities for vacant spaces or disused buildings to turn into makeshift homes.

From empty motels to festival halls, conference centres to cottages – buildings are being repurposed at breakneck speed, with the homeless a top priority.

“Housing, not handcuffs or forced congregate sheltering, for those experiencing homelessness, is the way to best ensure we all remain safer,” Eric Tars, of the U.S. National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said in a statement.

SHELTER

In Italy, which has registered more than 7,500 deaths from the virus – it is the world’s worst hit country – some rail stations are doubling up as centres offering shelter and wash rooms.

Alessandro Radicchi, who runs the Binario 95 shelter in Rome’s central train station, said police were now routinely stopping homeless people, saying they could pay a fine for wandering the streets without proof of residence.

“You can imagine how a homeless person who feels alone during an ordinary time, now really feels there is no one,” Radicchi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The centre supports about 70 people daily but can only sleep 12, Radicchi said, adding that the Italian capital has more than 40,000 people living without adequate housing but only 1,000 beds in homeless shelters.

“We cannot host all of them. But we tell them, ‘when you go in the street, remember these things like keep the mask and don’t touch anything if you don’t have to’,” he explained.

Officials expect the crisis to have an outsized impact on the homeless, who often make do without sanitation or food, bed down in close quarters and suffer more underlying illnesses.

For the millions of poor and daily wage workers in India, the threat of hunger and a lack of shelter looms larger than that of the deadly coronavirus, which has prompted the government to lock down the country until mid-April.

Since the shutdown began on Wednesday night, homeless shelters have filled with migrant workers and labourers who have lost their livelihoods and so cannot afford food or a bed.

ISOLATION

In the Canadian city of Montreal, a former hospital is this week being transformed into an isolation facility for homeless people exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus.

Patients will be kept in individual rooms in a building that sits at the top of a hill, tested for the virus and quarantined should they test positive, said a spokesman for the regional health agency, with capacity that can go up to 150 beds.

In London, the government will open a temporary hospital at the cavernous ExCel exhibition centre in east London, installing ventilators and beds in what was once an Olympic sporting venue.

U.S. communities have taken things into their own hands.

In California, a collective of homeless people and others whose housing is insecure have occupied six vacant, state-owned homes in the Los Angeles area.

“Letting hundreds of homes sit empty during a pandemic poses a health hazard to those like us — those who lack stable housing,” the Reclaiming Our Homes collective wrote on Facebook.

JUST A BED

Cities are also scrambling to help hard-pressed healthcare staff – working flat out and often without transport networks – with well-placed home owners opening up their flats for free.

As the virus decimates tourism, hotels and holiday lets are also sitting empty, prompting rental company Airbnb to open pages in Italy and France to connect medics with hosts.

“Doctors and nurses were requested to move from one city to another to support hospitals with exploding intensive care units. It was our desire to support … these heroes,” said Airbnb’s general manager in Italy, Giacomo Trovato.

He said the firm would pay hosts a minimum rate of about 10 euros a night and cover cleaning and fees for up to two months.

More than 2,000 homeowners and 180 doctors and nurses signed up within days of the launch, he said by phone.

Europe’s largest hotel group Accor said on Tuesday it had created a platform to offer housing to medical staff, and would offer up to 2,000 beds in 40 hotels for the homeless.

Such measures will be even more pressing as the virus digs into poorer countries where densely populated slum neighbourhoods create ideal conditions for disease transmission.

“COVID-19 is likely to spread at an even faster rate in informal settlements than elsewhere and with more disastrous consequences,” Farha said via WhatsApp.

“A ‘stay at home’ policy fails to recognise the conditions in informal settlements that make staying at home just as deadly, if not more, than no policy at all,” she said.

(Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary in London, Thin Lei Win @thinkink in Rome, Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi in Tbilisi, Annie Banerji @anniebanerji in Delhi and Jillian Kestler-D’Amours @jkdamours in Montreal, editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Homeless shelters, programs ill-equipped for coronavirus, U.S. cities warned

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Homeless people in the United States are at particular risk of contracting coronavirus, and the systems that care for them are poorly equipped to handle a major outbreak, according to public health experts.

The United States had more than 750 confirmed cases of the respiratory virus – which emerged in China’s Hubei province late last year – as of Tuesday morning and 26 related deaths, as estimated by a national tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.

The count could rise sharply as testing increases this week. More than 110,000 people have been infected globally and about 4,000 people have died, according to a Reuters tally of government announcements.

Fears have been raised that the U.S. homeless population – nearly 600,000 people in 2019 – could be particularly vulnerable to the disease, which spreads primarily through tiny droplets coughed or sneezed from an infected person and inhaled by another.

“For the general public that contracts this virus, they’re told to quarantine, rest and recuperate at home,” said Barbara DiPietro, senior director of policy at the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC), a nonprofit.

“What does that mean if you don’t have a home or a service provider who can accommodate them 24/7?,” she said.

Vigilant hygiene can prevent transmission, health experts say, in what could be a challenge for people living without homes.

Los Angeles lawmakers are considering setting up washing facilities in encampments, while county officials in Seattle have purchased a motel and set up modular housing, in part to quarantine homeless individuals who contract the disease.

There have been no reports of coronavirus among U.S. homeless populations.

The U.S. shelter system is ill-equipped to deal with a major outbreak, with most housing open only at night for sleeping and little room for quarantines, DiPietro said.

“We don’t have a homeless services infrastructure that is equipped, funded or staffed to be able to respond to a pandemic public health emergency,” she added.

Concerns about the potential for homeless populations to spread coronavirus have cropped up on social media and among conservative commentators who see homeless encampments ripe for spreading the disease.

But G. Robert Watts, an epidemiologist and head of the NHCHC, downplayed the concerns as “fearmongering”.

Because they often have weakened immune systems, “people experiencing homelessness are at greater risk of contracting this disease than of passing it on,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Several of the U.S. coronavirus cases have been in the states of Washington and California, which have among the highest homeless populations in the country.

Last week the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released extensive new guidance on dealing with infectious disease outbreaks in shelters, encampments and among homeless populations in general.

Also, President Donald Trump on Friday signed an $8.3 billion emergency bill to fight the virus, with $100 million for community health centers that NHCHC said could include homeless services.

Looking ahead to potential dangers, cities and homeless services providers are adopting a spectrum of new strategies for dealing with the outbreak.

“We are developing special protocols such as phone screening for patients calling into our primary care sites, education to prevent the spread of illness and support for our staff,” said Rachel Solotaroff, head of Central City Concern, a nonprofit in Portland, Oregon.

Some shelters are starting to assign people to sleep in the same beds every night to limit the potential for exposure, said Watts.

But homeless people get help from a host of service providers from shelters to food pantries, day centers and outreach teams, all of which are often pressed for resources and left out of response plans, DiPietro said.

A lack of resources could lead any of those to turn away anyone with potential symptoms that are not necessarily coronavirus, triggering a “vast increase” in homeless people with nowhere to go, she said.

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron @clbtea, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Fire in Minneapolis leaves 250 homeless on Christmas Day

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – Fire swept a hotel apartment building that provides transitional housing for the poor in downtown Minneapolis early on Wednesday, leaving about 250 people homeless on Christmas morning, city officials said.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported in the four-alarm blaze. Three residents with minor injuries were taken to a hospital for evaluation, and several others were treated at the scene for smoke inhalation, officials said.

The fire erupted before dawn on the second floor of the three-story Francis Drake Hotel before spreading to the third floor and attic area of the brick building, city Fire Chief John Fruetel told reporters outside the complex.

The cause was unknown, Fruetel said, adding that he expected it would take fire crews until Thursday to fully extinguish the blaze.

Television news footage showed flames leaping through the roof amid thick smoke as firefighters poured streams of water onto the burning structure.

“I would estimate that the building is going to be a total loss,” assistant fire chief Bryan Tyner told Minnesota Public Radio News.

With temperatures hovering just above freezing, the city immediately brought in transit buses to provide emergency shelter and warmth for displaced residents, Mayor Jacob Frey told a news briefing, adding that municipal agencies were working with the American Red Cross and other authorities to provide food, longer-term shelter, clothing and other needs for the evacuees.

“These are people’s lives, this is their home. They’re concerned about everything from a wallet or a phone so they can get in touch with a loved one on Christmas, to where are their babies going to get formula,” Frey said, choking up with emotion.

The Francis Drake, which opened in 1926 as a luxury hotel later converted to residential units, provides overflow shelter space for homeless families, as well as temporary lodging for individuals who lack permanent housing in Minnesota’s largest city, municipal and county officials said.

Drake Hotel resident Jason Vandenboom said he was awakened by his wife when fire alarms sounded and he ventured out of their unit to see “a guy coming down the hallway, just pounding on the doors, saying, ‘There’s a fire, we gotta get out of here.'”

Gazing out to another wing of the building, “I saw flames shooting at least about 10, 15 feet (3, 4.5 meters) up,” he told CBS affiliate WCCO-TV. Vandenboom said he then ran back to his room and told his wife, “‘Yeah, we gotta go now.’ … It was bad.”

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Culver City, Calif.; Editing by Leslie Adler and Sandra Maler)

U.S. Supreme Court leaves in place ruling barring prosecution of homeless

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a bid by Boise to overturn a lower court’s ruling that prohibited authorities in the Idaho city from prosecuting homeless people for staying outside if a bed at an emergency shelter is not available.

The justices left in place a ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that fining or jailing homeless people for sleeping in public or unauthorized places violates the U.S. Constitution’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment, a decision the city said threatens public health and safety.

The case centered on two Boise ordinances that prohibit camping or “disorderly conduct” by lodging or sleeping in public. The city said it needed to enforce the ordinances to prevent the formation of encampments that can lead to unsanitary conditions and crimes such as drug dealing and gang activity, and to keep public spaces accessible for residents, visitors and wildlife.

The dispute began when six people – Robert Martin, Robert Anderson, Lawrence Lee Smith, Basil Humphrey, Janet Bell and Pamela Hawkes, all current or former homeless Boise residents – sued the city in 2009, arguing that the laws violated their constitutional rights.

They had each been prosecuted under the ordinances and fined between $25 and $75. Five were sentenced to time served, while Hawkes twice served one day in jail.

The 9th Circuit last year ruled that the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibits punishing homeless individuals if there are more of them than available shelter beds. The ruling allowed the plaintiffs to seek an injunction against enforcement of the city’s ordinances.

“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the appeals court said.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

New Jersey mayor sues New York City over moving homeless with ‘offer they can’t refuse’

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration has sued New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, accusing the fellow Democrat of dumping his city’s population of homeless people on New Jersey’s biggest city.

The lawsuit naming the city of New York, its mayor and his homelessness czar, Steven Banks, accuses the de Blasio administration’s Special One-Time Assistance, or SOTA, program of using strong-arm tactics to send people across the Hudson River to find a place to live.

“This case concerns an unlawful program of ‘coerced’ migration,” Newark lawyers say in court documents filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey on Monday.

New York City officials are accused of “forcing SOTA recipients to accept the proverbial ‘offer they can’t refuse,'” the documents said, explaining that the phrase from the 1972 American Mafia film “The Godfather” is “really a command, ‘Do what we say or else.'”

The lawsuit accuses New York of violating federal commerce laws. It cites several former New York shelter residents who were hustled through tours of New Jersey apartments and pressured to quickly commit to one, with the SOTA Program paying landlords a full year’s rent up front.

“She was told by case managers in her shelter that she should look in New Jersey, in the cities of Newark or Paterson, because New York landlords were leery of the SOTA program and because she would find something quicker in New Jersey,” Newark’s lawyers said in court filings.

The de Blasio administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Baraka, Newark’s mayor since 2014 and the son of poet and African-American activist Amiri Baraka, and de Blasio, a former Democratic presidential candidate who touts himself as a progressive, appeared together in Newark last year to announce a tenant initiative aimed at keeping people in their homes, in part by ending illegal evictions. The New Jersey program was modeled after one in New York City and both mayors praised one another for pursuing the initiatives.

The vast majority of New Yorkers experiencing homelessness – over 63,000 homeless men, women and children – spend the night instead within the city’s shelter system where they remain unseen, according to The Bowery Mission nonprofit group. In a city of 8.5 million people, nearly one in every 121 New Yorkers is currently homeless.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Chicago’s cold blast spells concern for the city’s homeless

Chicago’s cold blast spells concern for the city’s homeless
By Brendan O’Brien

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Homeless advocates in Chicago were closely monitoring wind chill temperatures on Tuesday as an early season blast of arctic air swept across the eastern two-thirds of the United States.

The city of Chicago, where 86,000 homeless people live, opened its six warming shelters over the last few days as unseasonably cold temperatures dipped into the teens with wind chills into the single digits during the morning, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

“It’s incredibly concerning that we are experiencing this level of cold this early in the season,” said Doug Schenkelberg, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

The NWS said the Chicago metro area along with many major cities in the Midwest and East Coast and across the South would experience numerous record lows for a Nov. 12 or 13, with temperatures averaging 20 to 30 degrees below normal.

“It’s significantly earlier than we normally would see a change in the jet stream,” said Ed Shimon, a NWS meteorologist. “We actually have a cold front already blasting down to Florida and off the Gulf Coast … so records are being broken all over the place.”

The bitter cold prompted Cornerstone Community Outreach, on Chicago’s North Side, to place cots in its dining room to accommodate the influx of homeless people a month earlier than it usually does each winter.

“We have seen an uptick of people coming,” said Sandra Ramsey, executive director of Cornerstone Community Outreach. “From the looks of it, it spells out that we will have a long winter.”

Ramsey said she was worried about the homeless people who suffer from mental illness and refuse to go inside, opting to live under viaducts and in alleyways even amid deadly cold.

“It takes time and relationships to get these people … to come in on terribly cold nights,” Ramsey said. “But then they go back out.”

About 16,000 people sleep each night on the Chicago streets and shelters, Schenkelberg said. He added that the key to dealing with homelessness in extreme weather conditions ultimately is finding permanent supportive housing for the homeless.

“It’s never an easy time to be homeless regardless of the weather and when you add extreme weather like this into the mix, it makes life that much more difficult for people experiencing it,” he said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Frank McGurty and Tom Brown)