Consult-Liaison COVID-19 Homelessness Medicine Nonfiction Seattle Systems

“The Impact of Covid-19 on Homeless Services in Seattle.”

On Friday, I presented Grand Rounds to an agency in New York City. The title of my presentation was “The Impact of Covid-19 on Homeless Services in Seattle, Washington”. The audience was comprised mostly of psychiatrists who also work with people who are currently unhoused or have been homeless in the past.

In some ways, this presentation was easy to create: I simply described the agency I work for and walked the audience through the timeline of events:

While the Seattle-King County region was scrambling due to the first death from Covid-19, the first case of Covid-19 was diagnosed in New York City on March 1.

In other ways, this presentation is the only one I’ve made where I had to take breaks while making it because of anger, grief, and sadness.

The month of March was hectic for us and everyone else: We tossed routine policies out the window and scribbled new ones down. We shattered many of our old habits and hastily introduced new practices. Our collective workload increased significantly as we tried to be as flexible and responsive to the changes that were coming at us. We watched systems grind to a halt because systems can’t change that fast: We had to buy hand sanitizer from local distilleries and we donated N95 masks to hospitals. Systems that had long failed us suddenly had the harsh glow of media light on them: In all of Seattle, there were only five bathrooms with hand-washing sinks that were open 24/7. Congregate shelters, where over 200 people had no choice but to share one giant room and one bathroom, suddenly became unacceptable because the beds were not at least six feet apart.

And, yet, eight months later, not much changed. We haven’t had the opportunity to abandon restrictions; many of these new practices are now status quo because the situation hasn’t gotten better. I was honest with the audience: There was no resolution or hopeful conclusion at the end of my talk. Why was that? How could it be that, eight months later, things hadn’t actually changed much?

The audience said nothing. What is there to say? The lack of ownership and coordination at the federal level is the same now as it was in March/April. New York City has significantly more resources than Seattle, though those resources only go so far while SARS-CoV2 can cross state lines and national boundaries when no barriers are erected and no interventions happen. If people in a boat are not rowing in the same direction—or if people aren’t rowing at all—then the boat and everyone in it wastes a lot of time and energy.

I was surprised by the gifts of validation from the audience. Yes, we all work as psychiatrists and the last time most of us saw someone get intubated was when we were residents. However, we all recall doing consults on people in the ICU who were sick. Ostensibly, we were there to take care of the patient and maybe their family members. We also know, though, that an important (and often unspoken) part of psychiatric consults is to support the treating team.

We all have a sense of how terrible it is for the treating teams. These are the reasons why we desperately try to keep people healthy and out of hospitals. We know that our contributions are small—most people don’t live on the streets, in shelters, or in supportive housing; most people don’t have diagnoses of schizophrenia or severe substance use disorders—but we also know that our people are often maligned when they pass through the doors into traditional health care systems. We all have a sense of how terrible it is for our people. We also know that, due to the stress of living marginalized lives, our people often have more severe health conditions. They already have many risk factors that increase the likelihood of complications and death due to Covid-19. We’re trying to mitigate the stress of everyone involved.

It’s heartbreaking, terrible, and unfair.

To end the talk on a positive note, I mentioned several things I am grateful for:

  • The rainy season has arrived in Seattle and I get to sleep in a dry bed indoors.
  • I have confidence in where I am going to sleep tonight.
  • I have a job and can pay my bills.
  • I know I will eat (again!) today.
  • There now exists technology where I can speak to an audience of colleagues on the other side of the continent!

These both mean a lot and nothing at the same time.

In the meantime, we continue to do what we can while we wait.