In early March, New York City was fast becoming the nation’s epicenter for cases of COVID-19. Across Breaking Ground, our staff were adapting to new guidance daily, and planning for how to safely provide essential services to clients and tenants in the era of social distancing.
On the streets, our outreach teams were still visiting and working with unsheltered New Yorkers. In addition to helping clients meet their basic needs in an increasingly challenging environment, outreach teams kept their focus on the most important way to help protect people from the spread of the coronavirus – to obtain permanent housing.
But in-person housing interviews and visits to an office to verify benefits were now suddenly out of the question. One thing became immediately clear - the only way to sustain momentum in a process to move homeless clients toward housing would be to facilitate communication almost exclusively over the phone
When living on the streets, it’s not uncommon for personal belongings to be lost, stolen, or damaged. While some people living unsheltered have cell phones, many more do not. Heather Frey, Assistant Vice President for Programs took on the task of seeking out phones that could be distributed to street homeless clients.
Sometimes known as “burner” phones, inexpensive cell phones with pre-assigned numbers and prepaid talk, text and data plans are relatively easy to buy, but only individually. A key issue soon became apparent to Heather – while she could queue up to buy phones each morning from a major retailer, she was limited to purchasing two per day, and was not able to make any headway with a bulk order – understandable, as these phones have a certain reputation for anyone who’s seen The Wire. Two phones a day were better than none, but staff needed many more phones much more quickly in order to have their desired effect in helping homeless New Yorkers during COVID-19.