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Nassau, Suffolk use motels to isolate homeless with coronavirus

Kristina Thelwell and her daughter lived in a

Kristina Thelwell and her daughter lived in a motel as part of the program. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau and Suffolk counties have moved dozens of people who were homeless and infected with the coronavirus to motels in an effort to isolate them from group homes, shelters and parks to stop the virus from spreading in crowded quarters and public spaces, officials said.

Since early March, Suffolk has moved 95 people who are homeless or needed to be quarantined into motels, and Nassau has housed a total of 75 homeless people, social services officials said. As the coronavirus swept across Long Island, officials scrambled to make the arrangements, crafting a government safety net program with little precedent — on the fly.

Nassau has housed people at a local motel designated as the county’s isolation center. 

Suffolk has housed homeless clients with the virus at several motels in the county.

The counties declined to disclose the motels' locations, citing privacy concerns.

Lorraine Washburn-Baum, Nassau’s deputy commissioner of the Department of Social Services, said it's not possible to house such clients in group homes or traditional shelters for families and single adults.

“There’s a lot of shared space, we just couldn't have COVID spreading wildly through the entire population,” Washburn-Baum said. “We had to protect everyone.”

Nassau officials said the motels make excellent quarantine sites.

There are no interior hallways, and infected clients stay in rooms they only can enter from exterior walkways. Each room has an individual air conditioner, so air with the potential to carry the virus cannot not move from room to room. Only the clients, which included families, are allowed on the premises. Their lengths of stay have varied, depending on their health condition.

The motel program for people infected with the coronavirus is part of a larger set of services that both counties provide for homeless families and individuals. Nassau houses about 1,400 homeless people, and Suffolk provides services to more than 1,800 clients in shelters, motels and group homes.

Nassau County officials said they could not provide the cost of the motel rooms because of differing subsidies for clients. Food has cost the county $23,400, and reimbursement is expected under the federal CARES Act, officials said.

Suffolk officials did not respond to inquiries about how much their program has cost.

The number of motel residents was highest during the pandemic's peak in the spring, although a few clients still are in the county programs.

In Suffolk, hospitals alerted health officials to homeless patients who needed to quarantine.

“The goal was to minimize exposure,” said Frances Pierre, the county’s Commissioner of Social Services. “If we knew that people were going to go into a home and couldn’t isolate themselves, it would put other folks at risk.”

David Nemiroff, chief executive of the nonprofit that runs federally-qualified health centers across Nassau County, said he had pressed the county to designate an isolation center.

As the pandemic took off, officials at the health centers, which treat many uninsured and low-income people, were concerned about the coronavirus spreading among homeless patients who had been infected.

"At that point it wasn't safe for them to come into the health center if they didn't need to," Nemiroff said.

Some homeless clients said they joined the motel programs out of concern that they would contract the virus in less secure accommodations, such as group homes.

Kristina Thelwell, 32, said she and her daughter, 3, first entered Nassau's homeless system on May 1, and for 10 days lived in an East Meadow motel. She didn't feel secure there, and entered the motel program seeking stricter safety protocols.

Thelwell said she had to enter the county homeless system after leaving, “a living situation that I had to get out of it. It was just a bad environment for me and my 3-year-old daughter.” Before she moved into the isolation motel, she discovered she had been exposed to the coronavirus, she said.

“Being homeless and being exposed to COVID-19 is really a hard thing," Thelwell said. "You don’t have a home to quarantine yourself into, you don’t have a home to isolate yourself in. The scariest part of COVID and being homeless is being put into a shelter, especially if I have a child.”

Thelwell said she did her own housekeeping at the motel, and that Nassau provided microwavable meals, along with cereal and bananas, peaches and pears for her daughter.

Robert Messina, 51, said he had been living in a group shelter — a home in Roosevelt — for nearly a year, sharing a room with a bunk bed and cot with two other men. 

Messina said he tested positive for coronavirus in May and immediately alerted shelter officials. He moved to the county-run motel.

“Twenty guys in the house, I really didn’t want to spread it,” said Messina, who has worked in landscaping and carpentry. “I went and got my stuff and they got me out of there right away.”

Messina said he stayed for a month.

"I didn’t come into contact with anybody,” he said.

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