NEWARK, NJ — The city continued its efforts to test the entirety of the homeless population for COVID-19 on Monday, setting up shop at the Newark YM/WCA for roughly 475 individuals who call the facility home. 

YM/WCA, which shelters many homeless families as well as paying residents, was third on the city’s 21-stop mobile lab tour through Newark’s shelter system. Students from the County College of Morris’ nursing program swabbed residents under the supervision of an advisor. 

Last Monday, the homeless testing program commenced at an airport hotel where about 200 of the city’s most difficult-to-shelter individuals are staying for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. 

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The city invested $1 million in short-term housing for the sector of the homeless population that is on the street and often refuses shelter environments, which includes meals and wraparound mental health and substance abuse services. 

Since the city cannot force anyone to get tested, about 50% of the population has refused the service. 

Marc Wade, Director of Health and Community Wellness who is overseeing operations for the homeless testing initiative, said the primary reasons people refuse testing are fear about the swab testing being painful and uncertainty about what happens if the test is positive. 

Of those who do get tested, Wade said, the feedback has been positive. Those without addresses often feel overlooked and many feel relieved to know their status during this time. Of the 300 tested in the past week, only seven have been positive and are currently waiting out their 14 days of recommended quarantine time in one of the city’s rented hotel sites. 

“It’s triply rewarding to us for us to be able to do this because it’s making a huge difference in the life of someone who already has a lot of negative things going on at the same time,” Wade said. 

In the midst of a crisis that has caused an onslaught of death, financial hardship and social consequences in New Jersey’s largest city, a silver lining has also emerged in an unexpected place. As cities nationwide scrambled to address their homeless populations, Newark has achieved relative success in caring for its own. 

Wade said the continuum of care serving this population has also learned important lessons about how to best provide for Newark’s residents without addresses. 

In December 2019, the city rolled out plans to expand its shelter beds and homeless services through partnerships with Rutgers University, the nonprofit Bridges Outreach and Engagement and the addiction services provider Integrity House. Loss of outreach volunteers, staff falling ill and budget worries due to the virus could have spelled disaster for the progress Newark was working toward. 

Instead, the pandemic has helped the city get more chronically homeless individuals off the streets in the short-term, making it potentially easier for wraparound service providers to get them into longer-term treatment or housing options. 

“It makes a statement that people who we thought just would never accept coming in off the street, if you offer them appropriate accommodations as opposed to uncomfortable, unruly shelter environments, which may have been their experience, they’ll accept it,” Wade said. 

Moving forward, Wade said his department will use this momentum wisely, as well as the cooperative that has formed as a result of the pandemic’s demand for teamwork. 

“We’ve learned how to be more collaborative in working inter-departmentally in our city, as well as with those groups individually addressing this particular population,” he said. “It has been a silver lining in bringing all of us who have a responsibility for human care closer together and not siloing our activity.”