On the sidewalk under an I-95 overpass in Overtown, Barry Alston flinched as a doctor pushed a swab far up his nostril.
Alston did not feel sick Friday, but the 58-year-old homeless man was trying to prove a point to others who were skeptical about why the doctor was there. Some people sleeping on Miami’s sidewalks have heard of the coronavirus pandemic, and they’re worried. Others have doubts about how dangerous the virus truly is.
Alston was clear on where he stood. It’s a big deal, and people on this stretch of Northwest 11th Street need to know that.
“We need to be tested out here in the streets,” Alston said moments before his COVID-19 test. “If everybody don’t get tested, it keeps spreading. So we’re trying to stop the spread right now.”
A few minutes later, Dr. Armen Henderson pushed the swab deep into Alston’s nasal cavity, then slid it out and deposited the sample into a tube. He wore a blue respirator and gloves. A clear face shield pushed up against his baseball cap.
“This is clearly an act of civil disobedience,” Henderson had told a group of volunteers wearing masks and gloves gathered outside a van filled with burgers from Wendy’s, hand sanitizer wipes, 75 camping tents and 20 test kits. He convened the volunteers from various community groups in defiance of countywide orders to stay off the streets because he felt it was necessary to feed, educate, shelter and test the homeless as much as they could.
“I feel this is essential to protecting the public’s health,” Henderson said.
The doctor partnered with The Smile Trust, Dream Defenders and a nonprofit called Showering Love to bring a host of services to people experiencing homelessness in Overtown. Members of the Overtown Beautification Team, employed by the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, assisted with distributing the camping tents.
“This will help us feel safer, especially for the girls out here,” said one woman who said she goes by “Seven” in the streets. She sleeps in a makeshift shelter made of blankets and sheets tied to a chain link fence. A tent will give her more shelter and space on the sidewalk.
The woman was thankful for the supplies and for the opportunity to get tested, even if she was skeptical of the coronavirus’ threat.
Showering Love, led by CEO Jeanne Albaugh, brought a 42-foot city bus converted to a mobile showering vehicle so people could bathe and get a fresh set of underwear, socks and T-shirts. The bus has two bathrooms with showers. One is handicap accessible.
The walls inside the bus have inspirational messages on them. “Don’t give up.” “Open your heart to new adventures.” “Believe there is good in the world.”
“These messages are important reminders for everyone, including us, of our mission,” said Carla Zamudio-Dolan, the chief operating officer of Showering Love.
The idea, Albaugh told the Miami Herald, is to meet people where they are, show them respect and provide them with an opportunity to wash up. On Friday, the work was bolstered by the testing for COVID-19.
“These tests are so desperately needed,” Albaugh said.
Albaugh, who was homeless for 10 years, brings her experience to her work. She was able to run the bus and provide food, clothing and toiletries at Friday’s event because of donations she’s received since being interviewed on WLRN 91.3-FM a few weeks ago. The United Way of Broward County and apparel company Bombas helped provide clothing. Just two more volunteers joined Albaugh, a skeleton crew because of social distancing limitations.
It wasn’t easy. People gathered in groups outside the showering bus, which required disinfection after each use, and volunteers had to frequently remind people to keep their distance. Social distancing was still a new concept to many under the overpass.
Some people did not want to engage in anything beyond the offer for hamburgers and fries. One man quietly fingerpicked his guitar while lying back in his tent. Another could be heard saying he wasn’t worried because “that kind of stuff doesn’t go around in the ghetto.”
In this difficult environment, the whole outreach team tried to help a population at great risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. People who are experiencing homelessness include elders and people with compromised immune systems. They use public facilities, including transit, creating a risk of community spread.
While people with homes are being advised to stay inside as much as they can, those sleeping on the streets have to make do with what they have. Miami-Dade authorities are considering opening temporary shelters or partnering with hotels that would allow people to properly keep a safe distance from each other, under a roof, while having access to showers.
Late Friday, Henderson said he had swabbed 15 people and would send those swabs to the lab for testing. He collected contact information for each person who got tested, noting if they had cellphones or where they could be found when results were available in a few days.
Henderson plans to return next week to distribute more tents and possibly perform more tests. He hopes local governments see his event and push for more outreach and testing for people on the street, particularly if the crisis continues.
He echoed other health experts in saying that if any concentration of the population is infected, the whole community is at risk. The response from authorities who work with the homeless, in his view, has been too slow.
“Just test everybody, especially people who are vulnerable,” he told the Herald. “These people are the most vulnerable. They’re also at highest risk for getting the virus and for spreading it.”