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County launches plan to house sick, elderly, medically at-risk homeless in motels during COVID-19 pandemic

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Homeless clients keep their distance as they gather for grace before dinner on Saturday, March 21, at the county’s relocated overnight homeless shelter in the A.J. Ferlazzo building gymnasium.

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors signed off on a plan Tuesday to provide motel rooms for homeless people who are elderly, have underlying medical conditions or fall ill with COVID-19  during the coronavirus pandemic.

The county’s overnight homeless shelter, which has a maximum capacity of 48 people, was relocated to the A.J. Ferlazzo building gymnasium last month to allow clients to spread out enough to maintain the recommended 6-foot social distancing. 

But the overnight shelter cannot offer separate living and sleeping quarters for people who must quarantine because they are elderly, have underlying health conditions, have fallen ill with COVID-19 or have close exposure to someone who has.

Those are the kinds of individuals who would qualify for a hotel room during the pandemic, Courtney Tierney, director of the county’s department of social services, told county supervisors during their Tuesday, April 14 meeting.

The goal, Tierney said, is to reduce hospitalizations and emergency room visits among people experiencing homelessness.

“People experiencing homelessness are likely to stay in the hospital longer because the hospital does not want to discharge into homelessness,” Tierney said. “But the emergency room often has no choice but to discharge into homelessness because they cannot use a hospital room just for shelter.”

Each person staying at the Ferlazzo building shelter has their temperature taken and is assessed for COVID-19 symptoms upon their arrival, Tierney said. 

For the last several weeks, Streetlight Ministries, which the county contracts to run the overnight shelter, has been paying about $2,500 a week to put six or seven elderly and medically fragile clients in hotels rather than placing them at risk during the coronavirus pandemic by having them stay in a congregate setting at the Ferlazzo building shelter.

The money to cover the rooms has come from private donors who have so far given about $10,000 toward that cause, Rose Powers, Streetlight’s executive director, said in a recent interview.

“We’ve really been overwhelmed by the generosity of people in the community,” she said.

The county hopes to launch the motel program as soon as next week, Tierney said.

The plan is based on one implemented by King County, Washington, and was endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a model to use during the pandemic. Fairfax and Loudoun counties have launched similar programs, Tierney told the board.

It will cost about $625,000 but will not involve local tax dollars, Tierney said. 

Instead, the money will come from a mix of sources, including part of the $2.5 million grant Gov. Ralph Northam announced last week to help localities serve the homeless during the pandemic. Prince William County is slated to receive about $198,000 of that money and will spend $189,000 on the motel rooms. (The remaining $9,000 will be split evenly between three nonprofits: Action in the Community Through Service, Streetlight Ministries and Northern Virginia Family Services, Tierney said.)  

Another $135,000 will come from the Area Agency on Aging, while $300,000 will come from money housing developers have paid into the county coffers in affordable housing proffers.

All told, the money is enough to pay for 80 motel rooms for 60 days, which is hoped to be enough to accommodate homeless people who cannot stay in the county’s emergency overnight shelter because of its group setting.  

The plan was formulated with the support of the county’s Cooperative Council of Ministries which oversees the county’s “continuum of care” for individuals experiencing homelessness, Tierney said.

The county is negotiating contracts with two motels – one on the east side of the county and one on the west. The county will use county vehicles to transport people when necessary and is working out a plan involving nonprofits and possibly area restaurants to provide meals for homeless clients who need to stay in the hotels for a time, Tierney said.

The number of hotel rooms is based on a formula that suggests about 80 people experiencing homelessness will need such accommodations based on Prince William County’s latest “point-in-time” count, an annual census of individuals experiencing homelessness. The county counted 335 homeless people living the county last January, Tierney said.

“No one person will likely be in one room for 60 days,” Tierney said. “The rooms will transition as people become well or as their quarantine ends without resulting in COVID-19” symptoms.

The county will hire contractors to specially clean the rooms in between clients and likely will pay for extra security at the motels, Tierney said.

The motel contracts are being reviewed by the county attorney’s office. Tierney did not disclose which motels the county will contract for the service. 

The one thing still needed for the program to be successful is a means for the homeless clients to do their own personal laundry while staying in the motel. The county is still hoping to find a local church or civic group willing to take on that task, Tierney said.

“If there is a group listening with a laundry ministry, please let us know,” Tierney said.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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