It wasn’t that long ago, Danesha and James Birth were sleeping in their car.
It was a Jeep Cherokee, parked somewhere along a stretch of Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx.
“We lost our apartment due to a fire,” Danesha Birth told NY1. "We were sleeping in our Jeep and we decided to come into our shelter.”
That was two years and seven months ago.
Now they are at a brand new homeless shelter in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
What You Need To Know
- Mayor de Blasio promised to bring testing to all shelters by mid-May
- City is now focusing testing on homeless shelters with single adults or couples, not families with children
- So far, 8,137 homeless New Yorkers have been tested
“It went from difficult, to very difficult, to very, very difficult to easy, to easing up,” she told NY1 last month. "I can’t say easy because I am not out yet, but it motivates you.”
They speak in unison a lot of the time. Perhaps it’s a result of what this duo has dealt with over the years. It has been a lot.
Then came COVID-19.
At the start of the pandemic, they were at another shelter in the Bronx. There, they had to share a kitchen and a bathroom. Now they, at least, have their own bathroom — one comfort in a world that seems chaotic.
Last month, they got another moment of relief.
“It makes you tear,” Danesha told us.
"It makes you cry,” James replied.
They got tested for COVID-19.
The Births are just two of thousands of homeless New Yorkers now getting testing on site at some of the city’s homeless shelters.
People like Wilson Camacho, who was staying at the same shelter as the Births last month.
“I lost somebody close to the corona[virus],” he told us. "I just feel, as a person almost hitting 50, I need to take the opportunity to do this for my own health.”
According to the Department of Homeless Services, 8,137 New Yorkers were tested for COVID-19 at city shelters as of August 1.
Of those, 242 were positive — about 3 percent. At that time, 1,232 were waiting for results.
Those numbers are just a tiny fraction of the more than 55,000 people who sleep in city homeless shelters every night.
The leader of the city’s shelter system promises there will be more testing.
“We’re going to come back around to every single adult shelter until everybody is offered a test who wants a test, who is able to take the test,” Steven Banks, the commissioner for the city’s Department of Social Services, told us last month.
At that time, the city’s shelter system had seen nearly 1,400 cases in about half of its shelters. The top of the curve mimicked the city’s overall caseload, reaching its highest point in mid-April.
In April, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised testing would be throughout the shelter system by mid-May.
"The goal is to constantly be vigilant for anything that might pose a danger to homeless New Yorkers, and starting this week we will begin a program of testing homeless individuals at homeless services sites,” de Blasio said on April 29. "This initiative will begin this week and expand over the next couple of weeks. The goal is to reach across the entire shelter system by the middle of May."
That goal, as of the beginning of August, has not been reached.
“So our commitment was, we would ramp up broad scale testing of shelters when it became available in the city,” Banks told NY1. "We began offering testing at the end of April.”
Of the roughly 400 homeless shelters in the city, so far testing has been conducted at 171 of them — far short of the mayor’s goal this spring.
“We’ve been to literally every single adult shelter,” Banks said. "We’ve offered thousands of tests.”
The city has focused testing on single homeless people who live in dorm-like shelters. From there, it started testing couples in the system, like the Births. It’s unclear if it will ever move to testing families with children — they make up the majority of the homeless shelter population.
“We want to complete the testing of all the single adults, complete the testing of adult families, complete the testing of safe havens, and then we will turn our attention to the families with children shelters to determine the people who have not yet had tests,” Banks told NY1. "I think everyone would agree we had to focus our resources on the places where there were the biggest challenges and that’s the open congregate style shelters.”
For now, the Births appear grateful for the test and especially for the results: both of them tested negative.
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