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Philly to admit some homeless people to quarantine hotel without COVID-19 tests

Police have closed Walnut Street in Philadelphia where a Holiday Inn Express will be a city quarantine site. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Police have closed Walnut Street in Philadelphia where a Holiday Inn Express will be a city quarantine site. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Philadelphia will begin admitting some homeless people and certain people recently released from jail who have not tested positive for COVID-19 to a Holiday Inn Express being used as an emergency quarantine site.

Officials said homeless individuals who are elderly, have underlying medical conditions or have been exposed to someone who is COVID positive while living in a congregate setting, such as a shelter, would be able to take advantage of the city’s emergency quarantine sites in the coming days.

The move represents a change of policy for the Center City hotel, which was leased by the city and retrofitted to serve homeless individuals who had tested positive for the virus or were symptomatic. The city also reserved a Fairfield Inn & Suites and a Marriott location for the use of first-responders in need of a safe place to quarantine

The limited admittance policy came under fire from people experiencing homelessness and advocates who said shelters were turning away individuals while taxpayers were paying to rent a hotel where rooms were going empty. The 150-room Holiday Inn Express had just 93 occupants on Monday, said Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director. 

Tuesday, he said the city was changing course.

“We will be making adjustments to this protocol by allowing some seniors that are currently in congregant settings to quarantine at the Holiday Inn rather than at the shelter itself,” he said. “We’re also looking at when inmates have nowhere else to go upon their release whether it is appropriate at the Holiday Inn as well.”

Abernathy said city officials had done a “final walk through” of the quarantine facilities in anticipation of the change on Monday. Deana Gamble, a city spokesperson, said that new admission policies “would be operationalized in the coming days.”

Nowhere else to go’

A similar set of policies will also go into effect for certain non-violent individuals recently released from city jails. 

The city has separately moved to empty city detention centers of non-violent incarcerated individuals, as advocates have put pressure on officials to stave off an explosive outbreak among those who are in jail.

Abernathy said Tuesday that exact details of plans to admit people recently released from jail were still forthcoming.

“I need to follow up on exactly where we are with that … but it would be for folks who have nonviolent offenses and nowhere else to go,” he said.

A spokesperson for the city later said the new guidelines for homeless admission would also apply to this group –– with quarantine space available to elderly, medically fragile and those that may have been exposed to the virus.

Gamble said these guidelines would also go into effect in the coming days.

While Philadelphia has applied for federal funds to offset emergency costs associated with the pandemic, advocates said more funding should be used to secure more rooms for people without safe places to socially distance or quarantine. 

Jose Demarco, an organizer with ACT UP Philadelphia, pointed to initiatives like Cal. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Project Roomkey, which has put $150 million in emergency aid toward securing 15,000 hotel units for California’s homeless population.

Even with the looser guidelines introduced Wednesday, Philadelphia’s “policies simply do not go far enough,” Demarco said. 

“Unhoused and disabled people need isolation housing … We find it no coincidence that it is Black and brown communities that must bear the burden of the COVID-19 crisis.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated throughout to reflect updated information from city officials.

‘Nowhere else to go’

A similar set of policies is in effect for certain non-violent individuals recently released from city jails. 

The city has separately moved to empty city detention centers of non-violent incarcerated individuals, as advocates have put pressure on officials to stave off an explosive outbreak among those who are in jail.

Abernathy said Tuesday that exact details of plans to admit people recently released were still forthcoming.

“I need to follow up on exactly where we are with that … but it would be for folks who have nonviolent offenses and nowhere else to go,” he said.

A spokesperson for the city later confirmed that the new guidelines for homeless admission would also apply to this group –– with quarantine space available to elderly, medically fragile and those that may have been exposed to the virus.

While Philadelphia has applied for federal funds to offset emergency costs associated with the pandemic, advocates said more funding should be used to secure more rooms for people without safe places to socially distance or quarantine. 

Jose Demarco, an organizer with ACT UP Philadelphia, pointed to initiatives like Cal. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Project Roomkey, which has put $150 million in emergency aid toward securing 15,000 hotel units for California’s homeless population.

Even with the looser guidelines introduced Wednesday, Philadelphia’s “policies simply do not go far enough,” Demarco said. 

“Unhoused and disabled people need isolation housing … We find it no coincidence that it is Black and brown communities that must bear the burden of the COVID-19 crisis.”

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