Skip to Main Content

Why ‘everyone has a stake’ in protecting homeless Fort Worth residents from coronavirus

April 16,2020

See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Kaley Johnson here.

Gardner Russell sat on a folding chair outside the Fort Worth Convention Center, his black and white dog, Tara, pulling on the leash he held. Tara sniffed a man and woman sitting on the curb nearby, who said hello to her, before trotting back to her owner.

On Tuesday afternoon, Russell was one of dozens of people waiting for the convention center in downtown Fort Worth to open at 4 p.m. On Monday night, 421 men, women and children ate dinner and slept at the overflow shelter.

The temporary shelter opened last month primarily to serve people who had to leave other shelters in order to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In mid-March, city, hospital and homeless shelter leaders realized in order to keep people 6 feet apart in shelters, they needed to move hundreds of people. Those without homes need daily health checks and access to clean, sterile environments to prevent the spread of coronavirus not just in the shelters, but in the community as a whole.

Safety measures at the convention center and shelters not only keep those who are homeless safe, but also help protect other members of the public. Preventing the spread of coronavirus among the homeless keeps the health system from being overwhelmed, said Steve Berg, the vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“It’s all about keeping the health system from getting overwhelmed, so that the health system can deal with the people who they need to deal with,” Berg said. “That is the way that everyone has a stake in everyone in the community being safe from the disease.”

Toby Owen, executive director of the Presbyterian Night Shelter, had to cut his shelter’s capacity from 750 to 500 people.

He said it was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do in his professional career.

“As a homeless service provider, you are used to going out and wanting people to come into your shelter to help people get back on their feet,” Owen said. “When you have to tell people they can’t stay, it’s a complete paradigm shift in what you’re used to doing. And it was hard.”

At other Fort Worth shelters, executive directors gave the same message to their residents.

Don Shisler told 58 men and 16 women at Union Gospel Mission they would need to go to the convention center. The shelter already had several cases of coronavirus — four staff members and three residents tested positive.

At the Salvation Army down the road, Executive Director Beckie Wach told 50% of their families they would have to leave, too, although they were able to rent affordable housing apartments for the families to stay in.

The move was for the safety of not only those in the shelter, but also for the community. People who do not have shelter might gather in public spaces, increasing the risk of coronavirus spreading.

“If space is a big problem for people staying in shelters at night or out during the day, it makes it easier for the virus to spread,” Berg said.

The convention center’s capacity of about 420 was based on how many people needed to relocate from other shelters.

The supplemental shelter was — and is — a massive collaboration that aims to protect those without a home from catching or spreading coronavirus.

“This is not typical outreach, this is not typical sheltering,” said Tammy McGhee, executive director of Tarrant County Homeless Coalition. “This adds a whole other level of complexity to those services. We have some very talented, very successful shelters and outreach services in our community that are very good at getting people housed.”

Keeping everyone in a community safe from COVID-19 limits the chances that the health system will be overwhelmed. The more people who need to be hospitalized, the less resources there are available to everyone.

Many people who are homeless have other conditions that make them high-risk for developing severe symptoms if they catch coronavirus, Berg said. Asthma, respiratory problems and poor nutrition can cause a weakened immune system.

“If there’s no more room in the hospital and you’re the next person who comes in, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re not going to get the help you need,” he said.

The city, medical groups and shelter advocates have taken many precautions to stop coronavirus from spreading throughout the city’s homeless population.

At shelters and the convention center, every person has their temperature taken when they leave or go inside. Residents take a health screening once a day and if someone has symptoms or a fever, they are immediately referred to the JPS clinic or a designated medical room at the Convention Center.

RVs parked on the east side of the convention center near the loading docks outside and near the parking garage for the Fort Worth Convention Center are being used to house homeless residents who have tested positive for coronavirus.
As of Tuesday, six people had tested positive for the virus at the convention center and 16 people were in the medical rooms awaiting COVID-19 test results. Some residents contracted COVID-19 from a shelter, and another person was referred by Baylor Scott & White. Two people recovered and left the center, leaving four patients who were being treated in RVs behind the center.

On Tuesday, Richard Zavala, the Park and Recreation Department director, passionately explained the importance of protecting those in Fort Worth who do not have a home to go to.

The first COVID-19 patient at the convention center was a man who had been living in his car for two months and working in a warehouse. After two weeks when he got better and was not contagious, he drove to the facility to try and get his job back.

“You gotta respect a human being like that,” Zavala said. “He’s trying.”

Education is another important aspect of prevention. Some officials, like Zavala, are trying to make sure everyone knows the importance of social distancing.

Zavala said he recently talked with a group of people at a Fort Worth park who he knew were staying at the center. He visited with them and explained the importance of social distancing to prevent getting the virus.

“One of the people said to me, ‘My last meal came out of a trash can,’” Zavala said. “So it’s a different look at things in life.”

Park and Recreation Department Director Richard Zavala gives a tour of the Convention Center on Tuesday, April 14, 2020, which is being used as an overflow shelter for Fort Worth homeless during the coronavirus pandemic. The overflow shelter, which has a capacity of around 420, opened to primarily serve people who had to leave other shelters in order to maintain social distancing.
At the Salvation Army, Wach said staff are cleaning all high-traffic areas four times an hour. Areas with less traffic get wiped down once an hour.

Shisler said they are no longer taking volunteers at Union Gospel and staff that have any symptoms work from home.

Judy Carmen, 60, and her partner tried to find a place to stay in Dallas-Fort Worth last week on their way to Austin from Colorado. They were routed to the Convention Center, but Carmen did not want to stay there, partially because there were no shower facilities and no place to park their car.

She said she is not worried about getting sick, despite having a chronic inflammatory lung disease.

“Every shelter we’ve been in, if one person gets a cold, everybody gets a cold and the damn thing circulates for months,” she said. “Everyone in and out of the hospital has bronchitis, or a respiratory infection. No, if we haven’t gotten deathly ill from all of that, I’m not worried about this.”

Other cities have seen a rapid spread of the disease in shelters.

“It’s a population that is at great risk and we’ve seen that in some communities,” Berg said. “So we hope that people running the shelters in Fort Worth can keep up the good work.”

Carmen said she’s been struggling with the lack of public spaces and what she sees as dwindling resources.

“It’s just cut off so many avenues that normally we would utilize,” Carmen said. “Thrift stores are closed, shelters are not letting people in.”

Daniel Busbey, left and Lupe Aldama wait for the Fort Worth Convention Center to open its doors on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. The Convention Center is being used as an overflow shelter for Fort Worth homeless during the coronavirus pandemic.
While he’s grateful for a meal and a place to stay, Russell said everything has seemed harder since the pandemic started. His depression has worsened, and he can’t go to church since they shut down in-person services.

“It’s hard to get anything done,” he said. “My doctor’s appointments were canceled. It’s been hard staying away from drugs — I’m surrounded by it.”

Until recently, Russell was staying at the Presbyterian Night Shelter, but said he was kicked out last week for smoking marijuana.

Gardner Russell sits with his dog, Tara, while waiting for the Fort Worth Convention Center to open its doors on Tuesday, April 14, 2020. The Convention Center is being used as an overflow shelter for Fort Worth homeless during the coronavirus pandemic.
During the day, Russell said he does not do anything at all — there’s nowhere to go. Public space is another resource coronavirus has sapped away.

The Convention Center is only open overnight from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m, and True Worth Place is Fort Worth’s only day shelter.

Before coronavirus, about 500 men, women and children would gather at the day shelter, which is run by Presbyterian Night Shelter, Owen said. As of April, only 125 people are allowed at True Worth Place at one time.

With places such as malls and restaurants closed, Carmen said she feels like there are not many places for the homeless to go during the day.

After deciding not to stay at the Fort Worth Convention Center, Carmen and her partner drove to a truck stop on Alliance Gateway Freeway in Fort Worth, but the manager there did not want them there.

“The guy said to me, we can’t have you staying up here. We don’t know how often you shower,” Carmen said.

On April 7, the couple was driving in Fort Worth when a semi crashed into them, totaling her car. As of Tuesday, they were able to hitchhike as far as Amarillo but were still trying to find a way to Austin.

Coronavirus has also severely limited food options for some people.

Daniel Busbey, 61, said he used to camp out on East Lancaster, but the shelter-in-place order shut down many food options, and meals have become scarcer. He’s been staying at the convention center for about 10 nights.

“One thing that hurts the homeless about this is, there on Lancaster, there were a lot of cookouts and feed-outs and Christian people would hand out things, and now all that is canceled and they’re not allowed to do it,” he said.

At the end of the day, Busbey said those at the convention center are doing what everyone else is — “hoping and waiting for the best.”

Location Mentioned: Fort Worth Convention Center