Homeless support organisations are making contingency plans for the spread of Covid-19 among those in emergency accommodation and accessing night services.
It came as calls increased for extra capacity within homeless services to cater for an outbreak, with one organisation CEO querying whether the government should be checking on the availability of hotels or the capacity of the Army to erect a field hospital if required.
Fiona O'Reilly, CEO of Safetynet Primary Care, which has outreach teams that deal with the medical issues of those sleeping rough, said immediate issues that needed to be decided included drop-in centres, provision of food parcels, and transport for those who may begin to show symptoms.
"Preparedness is never panic," she said, adding that while existing protocols centre around testing of people possibly infected with Covid-19 by the National Ambulance Service, it was possible that Safetynet medics may be required in the situation escalates.
Ms O'Reilly led a team that delivered a report called 'Homelessness: An Unhealthy State' which showed that 90% of people in emergency accommodation at that time had a diagnosed physical or mental illness.
“There’s need for an injection of 20% bed capacity in homeless sector to be able to implement self-isolation guidelines for Covid 19,” she said. “There isn’t much slack in the emergency accommodation system but now it is really needed if containment is to be maximised.
If someone who is homeless is suspected of coronavirus they should be isolated in a room with their own bathroom while test results are awaited. There are very few hostels that are equipped to do this on any scale. One or two small hotels or b&Bs need to be appropriated for this purpose
Among those making plans is Merchant's Quay Night Cafe, which has been running since the start of 2015, has an average number of 46 people staying per night, sleeping on mats on the floor and able to access additional support services through Merchant's Quay Ireland.
It has already been looking at preparedness measures in the case of a possible Covid-19 outbreak among its client base.
A spokesman for Merchant's Quay Ireland said: “We have taken all available measures to protect our clients and staff, increasing availability of hand sanitizer and speaking with clients about the risks. Our senior management team meet every morning in order to monitor and respond to the situation.
At the same time, we are putting in place contingency plans should there be a wider outbreak of the virus and are liaising with other agencies and our statutory partners.
It’s understood that 20 beds provided by the Civil Defence as part of the cold weather initiative that would have expired at the end of March have already been removed from the emergency accommodation system in readiness for general use if required during the current coronavirus outbreak, but that contingency has already been made to replace those."
A spokesman for the Department of Housing said: “Minister Murphy met with DRHE officials and local authority housing teams last week where Covid-19 preparations and responses were discussed.
“The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is working with the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) and local authorities nationwide to coordinate the response to COVID-19 related public health concerns among users of emergency accommodation and rough sleepers.
“In this regard, a homeless services specific HSE guidance note has issued to all local authorities and service providers. The DRHE and local authorities have introduced a range of precautions aimed at minimising the risk of infection among service users and staff.
“Contingency beds and suitable accommodation has also been put in place to provide capacity for persons to self-isolate, if necessary.
“The Department is continuing to liaise closely with the HSE on the matter and remains in constant contact with the DRHE and local authorities.”
- The HSE have developed an information pack on how to protect yourself and others from coronavirus. Read it here
- Anyone with symptoms of coronavirus who has been in close contact with a confirmed case in the last 14 days should isolate themselves from other people - this means going into a different, well-ventilated room alone, with a phone; phone their GP, or emergency department - if this is not possible, phone 112 or 999 and in a medical emergency (if you have severe symptoms) phone 112 or 999