Chris Anthony Leachman knows the toll COVID-19 has had on the homeless population. He’s lived it and has seen enough to know he wants no part of it.
He still goes to the men’s shelter occasionally but has spent the last four months sleeping outside by Central Library.
“I ain’t trying to get too close to people,” he said while sitting on a bench outside of the city-county building. “I just stay out here.”
Leachman, 38, who’s been homeless since shortly before Christmas last year, said he’s picky about what food he gets from drop-off locations for fear that it could be contaminated.
He keeps up with the news from his cell phone, which has internet, and whatever he hears in the shelter and at the grocery store when he wanders around.
“It’s kinda hard out here because it is out here,” Leachman said of the disease. “You got people getting sick. You got a lot of people getting coronavirus.”
Beyond anecdotes from the people who are actually living through the COVID-19 pandemic without permanent housing, there isn’t a clear, unified picture of how the disease has impacted those experiencing homelessness.
Shelters and other service providers, along with local and state partner agencies, that are part of the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) report health screenings, tests administered, positive tests and other metrics, which are tracked by Indianapolis Continuum of Care.
As of May 27, there were 164 positive COVID-19 tests. Most test results were entered by a safe recovery site operated by the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA).
But the data doesn’t capture the full impact of COVID-19 on those experiencing homelessness, according to Chelsea Haring-Cozzi, executive director of the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP), which tracks the data on behalf of Indianapolis Continuum of Care.
That’s because there are people who get tested by the health department or at a hospital but never go to the safe recovery site, and the service provider they worked with didn’t enter them into the data tracking system.
HMIS has “fairly broad coverage” in Indianapolis, Haring-Cozzi said, but doesn’t have 100% participation among shelters and others provided.
At Wheeler Mission Ministries, the largest shelter network in the county, there have been about 16 positive cases among staff and about 30 more among men staying in the shelters, according to William Bumphus, director of the men’s shelter.
Those numbers include a shelter in Bloomington, but Bumphus said almost all of the organization’s positive cases have come from Indianapolis.
Horizon House, which offers basic needs such as food and water and does street outreach, did not say if any of the people they’ve served have tested positive, citing privacy concerns.
“However, a number of individuals who have been served by Horizon House over the past 2 months have reported COVID-19 symptoms and/or had known exposure to the virus,” Leslie Kelley, director of programs, said in a statement.
At Family Promise of Greater Indianapolis, which can serve 30 people at a time, one person had symptoms of COVID-19 but tested negative, according to the shelter’s executive director, Mike Chapuran.
The Recorder also reached out to other shelters and service providers but did not get a response.
The county health department doesn’t track how many people experiencing homelessness have tested positive.
“To my knowledge, we don’t have data on the number of COVID-19 positive cases in the county among the homeless,” Curt Brantingham, a spokesperson from the health department, said in an email.
Shelters and outreach providers are supposed to do a health screening on visitors and contact the county health department if further evaluation is required, Brantingham said.
From there, the health department does further screening to determine if a COVID-19 test is necessary. If so, testing is arranged at the safe recovery site.
The recovery site accepts people experiencing homelessness, as well as victims of domestic violence and others.
The site had served 300 people as of May 26, the state's Joint Information Center told the Recorder.
Keeping track of how many people experiencing homelessness have tested positive for COVID-19 is difficult, in part, because of people like Leachman who are homeless but don’t have much interaction with the shelters.
Amber Ames, executive director of Stopover Inc., which provides emergency shelter and other services to homeless teenagers and young adults, said the organization has simply lost connection with some of its normal clients.
The emergency shelter has room for eight youth ages 12 to 17. Most of those referrals for the shelter, as well as a transitional housing program, come from the school system, though, which hasn’t served students in person since mid-March.
“It almost feels like they’ve gone off the grid a little bit,” Ames said.
There haven’t been any COVID-19 cases at Stopover Inc. as of May 21, according to Ames, and the emergency shelter is still at capacity.
Whatever toll COVID-19 and the resulting economic collapse have had on the homeless population could become significantly worse in July, when the state’s moratorium on evictions is set to expire.
Plus, July is usually when there’s a surge in homelessness, Chapuran said.
Tax refunds start running out, landlords are less lenient than they are in the colder winter months, and parents can miss work because they can’t find child care with schools out for the summer.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.