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Homeless children ‘desperate’ for safe spaces amid outbreak

Life during the coronavirus pandemic is difficult for most everyone, but it is a particularly daunting time for those without a home, including more than a million children. Hari Sreenivasan spoke with Kevin Ryan, the CEO of Covenant House, an aid agency for homeless youth, about the challenges these young people are facing.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Kevin, shelter-in-place is great if you have a shelter. What about the populations that you serve?

  • Kevin Ryan:

    Well, that's exactly the fear that confronts so many young people right now. They're often not with an inspiring circle of love around them. Some have aged out of foster care. Some of them have lost family members. And so they're desperate for a safe place to shelter in place. Many of the young people's Covenant House is serving in all 31 cities are also medically compromised. They haven't been regularly seeing a doctor. So this is a bit of a perfect storm for so many young people facing homelessness across the Americas.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are you seeing young people come in with the symptoms, the high fevers, the cough, the body aches?

  • Kevin Ryan:

    We are, we've had to repurpose all of our Covenant houses to create safe isolation spaces for young people. And whether it's all of the offices that were at the top floor of the shelter in Manhattan, where the drop-in center in Houston or the mother child program in Anchorage, Alaska. Those spaces are all now spaces where we care for sick and symptomatic young people.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Young people have a tendency to feel invincible. Are they aware that this is a virus that can infect them just like it can in their grandparents?

  • Kevin Ryan:

    I think that that's certainly more and more the case, especially when young people at Covenant House see their friends begin to become sick and move over into the wellness spaces or the quarantine units. One of the particularly troubling aspects of the coronavirus outbreak is the pervasiveness of positive tests among asymptomatic homeless persons. And we're just beginning to see more and more of that. For example, a couple weekends ago in Atlanta, the Fulton County Department of Health tested all of the young people at Covenant House and all of the staff and tested most of the folks who are using homeless services in Atlanta and found that of the two thousand people who were tested, there were more than 30 who tested positive and were completely asymptomatic. And that doesn't account for all the staff who tested positive, even though they were asymptomatic. And we're seeing the same thing in Boston. It's very possible in these cities where you have one or two or three thousand people who are accessing the homeless services system to get tested. In cities like New York, where on any given night you have fifty five thousand to sixty thousand people inside this system, and it is still very difficult to access tests. It's almost impossible to know what the pervasiveness is or the prevalence of asymptomatic positives. And I suspect it's much higher than we know.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So by working in multiple countries, by having shelters in different locations, you're actually seeing the disparity of testing play out almost market by market. Covenant house by house.

  •  Kevin Ryan:

    That's it. That's absolutely right. I mean, if, for example, as I just said in Atlanta, every young person has been tested at Covenant House in New Jersey before this morning, it was impossible to get testing if you were asymptomatic. And throughout most of the Americas and that would include Nicaragua, Guatemala and dorus in Mexico, there's virtually no testing. So it's a very big challenge for us and trying to make sure that we care for kids. And it makes the use of masks and face shields and gloves and gowns critically important to prevent the spread of the disease.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How are you getting PPE to your staff? How are you protecting them during this time?

  • Kevin Ryan:

    Well, it's a bit of the Wild West. I mean, we are out on the open market and we're competing with government agencies and other for profit and not for profit businesses trying to access supplies. And we've also been purchasing in fact, we purchased several weeks ago a significant supply of masks. And we were in competition, competition with a federal government agency at the time that we were doing that. There's no coordination. So it's really every system for itself. And when we access this equipment, we send it out to our teams, whether that's Alaska or California or Texas or New Orleans, and we try to target it in the places where we have the highest prevalence of the virus.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of the things that your organization does is the sleepout campaign trying to increase the awareness of homelessness in this circumstance. What are you trying to get people to do?

  • Kevin Ryan:

    Well, this week we're inviting hundreds of thousands of folks in Canada and the United States and Mexico and Central America to spend a night inside their homes, their apartments, and sleep on the floor in an act of solidarity with young people who don't have a safe place to be. This is a very scary time for lots of folks who don't have what many of us take for granted, which is a roof over our heads. Bed to sleep on. And some family supports.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Kevin, is there any kind of silver lining from this? What's this sort of optimism in you?

  •  Kevin Ryan:

    Well, the virus has us cornered and is pummeling us. It's turned off the lights and is tipping and tripping us. But love has something else in mind altogether. Love is stocking grocery shelves. Love is making sure that folks who are struggling for survival have high quality health care. Love is showing up in emergency rooms and we see love at Covenant House all across the Americas because it's chefs and janitors and social workers and doctors and nurses who are showing up on the front lines to make sure that folks who are experiencing homelessness have access to quality care. I do think that there's an opportunity here for us to be really reflective about this chance that we get once in a lifetime. One hopes to be loving in the world for young people who don't have a safe place to be. Covenant House is one of the ways that happens, but it's happening in thousands and thousands of ways all across the country right now, and it's quite breathtaking.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Kevin Ryan, CEO of Covenant House, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Kevin Ryan:

    Thank you.

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