COVID-19 has affected many groups of people across New Jersey: health professionals, staff and residents at long-term care facilities and veterans' homes, teachers, students and families. But what about the state's homeless population?

New Jersey communities and counties that work with the homeless population have been working diligently to combat many COVID-related issues, said Kasey Vienckowski, team leader for Ending Homelessness at Monarch Housing Associates in Cranford.

They've had to reduce capacity in homeless shelters and congregate settings to ensure social distancing but have had to increase hotel/motel placements.

Protocols are in place for isolation to ensure everyone's safety at the shelters. Vienckowski also said they've had to line up services to those in hotel/motel placements. Typically when homeless people are in shelters, there's more access to medical, mental health and physical services. So they've had to work to ensure that anyone who is in isolation or in a hotel/motel placement, have the same access to all of the medical and mental health services that they may need.

There's been a lot of conversations around Code Blue and how to ensure that the unsheltered have access to shelter on nights when it reaches 32 degrees and below, said Vienckowski. In the past, Code Blue procedures involved warming settings in operation and having congregate settings where the homeless can come in off the streets and spend the night. But there has been a significant reduction in that type of service being available due to COVID-19.

She said that's why operationalizing hotel/motel placements is so important and being sure there is the capacity available to serve all who are unsheltered on nights when the temperature reaches Code Blue criteria.

The counties, agencies and communities that have been working with New Jersey's homeless have been amping up the medical care services available. They've also screened everyone coming in and leaving the shelters for any coronavirus symptoms to make sure there isn't a spread, said Vienckowski.

During a webinar with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Vienckowski said the CDC gave guidance to homeless providers about the COVID-19 vaccine. While they have not reached a point where the homeless will be getting the shots, agencies across the state are planning for it.

Logistically, they want to make sure that those who are vaccinated are able to get the second shot especially if they are not in the same locational setting as the first shot, she added.

Monarch Housing is conducting its Point-in-Time Homeless Count on Jan. 27. Vienckowski said the count is HUD mandated and this year is a mandated year for a sheltered and unsheltered count.

"We've been able to actually open it up to a 14-day count so we're able to start counting people on Jan. 27 and we have until Feb. 10 to collect data on where anyone who is homeless was staying on the night of Jan. 26," said Vienckowski.

She said the agencies want to rely less on volunteers for the count this year and more on agency staff who have already been interacting with the homeless in order to keep things safer during the pandemic.

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Department of Housing and Urban Development