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Invisible and ignored, the homeless are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus spread

Not many people noticed the figures moving furtively into and out of the campsite. Which was odd because tents and tarps had been set up in plain sight a scant few yards from Interstate 40.

For weeks, months really, the small camp sat on a little rise, sheltered somewhat by a thick canopy of trees and the dip of a natural berm.

Cars and trucks flew by at all hours, day and night, yet the bright orange tent and blue tarp — unnatural colors in winter — stuck out.

And few noticed.

“I didn’t even know they were there,” said Michelle Brown, a manager at Conn’s Electronics on Hanes Mall Boulevard near a barely perceptible footpath that led into the wooded site. “Until the man came in one day and told me my (car) trunk was open. That was weird.”

Invisible, ignored and mostly forgotten, the homeless are particularly vulnerable to all sorts of hazards.

And the biggest threat of all, the rampant COVID-19, encroaches unseen and unchecked while warming weather pushes more of them outdoors.

Other, more pressing concerns

The city’s shelters and soup kitchens, particularly during the lean winter months, does yeoman’s work caring for — and about — several hundred chronically homeless.

Samartian’s Ministries, City with Dwellings, the Bethesda Center, churches and any number of concerned volunteers give countless hours making sure basic needs — food, shelter, medicine and old-fashioned human contact — are met.

Seasonal overflow shelters have (or soon will) close for the spring and summer. And the COVID-19 scourge complicates matters.

Even if the danger hasn’t registered.

“The homeless I speak to don’t even mention it,” said Al Burchett, the coordinator of an outreach group called Habit Missions Ministry, the other day while on a Walmart run to stock up on supplies.

“Their bigger concern is, ‘Everything is closed and we can’t get things,’” he said. “There’s no place to charge their phones, which is very important.”

For many, it’s the only connection to worried families or the larger world beyond their reach or ability to access. Mental illness, substance abuse or both can exacerbate even the simplest of tasks.

Burchett, through his ministry, tries to make once a week rounds to places homeless people live outside. Wooded camps, under bridges and railroad tracks, wherever fate has placed them.

He and other volunteers try to supply durable goods — tents, sleeping bags and blankets — as well as some food and basic toiletries.

Burchett keeps the locations of his regular visits private as he does not want to invite outside harassment to people just trying to survive.

Some locations you’d never suspect; others, such as the former camp off Hanes Mall and I-40 or an abandoned site nearby right off U.S. 421, are in plain sight.

“We serve on a regular basis 30 to 35 people,” he said. “Sometimes you see somebody once and never again.”

Hazards of transiency

The camp near Conn’s was dismantled a few weeks ago.

Property owners, or someone acting on their behalf, hauled a recliner and other items out of the trees. A few clothes, food containers and other debris were left behind and a small “No Trespassing” sign went up.

“The woman came inside and said she felt like she was going to throw up,” Brown said of a recent morning.

An ambulance was summoned, and during a subsequent conversation, the woman “said she lived ‘Over there,’” Brown said. “I thought she meant apartments.”

Some time after that — it’s not clear exactly when or at whose request — the tents (and their occupants) moved on.

“It could have been the store if it was on private property or an officer might have decided to take action on their own,” said Lt. Jose Gomez of the Winston-Salem Police Department. “It might not even have generated a report as there was no crime and no arrest.”

Sadly, it’s just the nature of a transient lifestyle. Out of sight, even when in plain view.

Another (apparently) abandoned campsite less than 1/2-mile away across several lanes of convergent highway traffic illustrates the health challenges for the homeless and those who try and care for them.

Tents were set up nearly on top of one another — certainly closer than recommended for safe social-distancing. Beer cans, plastic bottles and discarded fast food containers sat in piles.

A broken bicycle and a broken suitcase were tossed into the perimeter. It’s troubling that people lived that way just steps away from a busy highway and commercial centers.

Warnings about self-isolation, increased personal hygiene, hand washing and the physical signs of COVID-19, likely will fall unheeded and unheard. But it won’t be for a lack of trying.

“Our goal is to build through trust and friendships,” Burchett said. “It’s not about supplies.”

PHOTOS: Homeless camps in Winston-Salem

Amid the coronavirus, ICE will stop detaining suspected undocumented immigrants who are not facing criminal charges, the agency says

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, agents with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will stop detaining suspected undocumented immigrants who aren’t facing criminal charges, the agency says.

ICE will “temporarily adjust its enforcement posture” beginning last Wednesday, according to its website. The agency enforces the country’s immigration laws.

“ICE’s highest priorities are to promote lifesaving and public safety activities,” the agency said.

On Thursday, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy Homeland Security secretary, clarified ICE’s recent announcement on its enforcement policy in a tweet thread. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security oversees ICE.

“ICE will continue to prioritize arresting and removing criminal aliens and other aliens who pose a threat to public safety, just as it always has during” the Trump administration, Cuccinelli said.

ICE will focus enforcement on undocumented immigrants who are public-safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds, the agency said.

“For those individuals who do not fall into those categories, (ICE) will exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis or utilize alternatives to detention, as appropriate,” ICE said.

Lindsay Williams, an ICE spokesman in its Atlanta office, declined to comment on the dual messages from his agency and Cuccinelli. Williams pointed to ICE’s most recent statement.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, ICE will not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances, the agency said.

“Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement,” ICE said.

Andrew Willis Garces, a spokesman for Siembra NC, said that ICE’s enforcement policy undermines public health, the public’s trust in government and the immigrants’ constitutional protections.

“This ICE policy is pulling the wool over our eyes,” said Garces, whose advocacy group supports immigrants.

In a post on its website, ICE said it would continue its daily enforcement operations in making criminal and civil arrests of undocumented immigrants amid the pandemic. The agency said it’s committed to the health and safety of its employees and the public.

In fiscal year 2019, ICE agents arrested about 143,000 undocumented immigrants and deported more than 267,000 people, according to ICE statistics.

“That ICE is willing to continue making detentions of people not wanted by local law enforcement for outstanding criminal warrants shows how willing they are to undermine public safety and public health,” Garces said. “The federal government is urging everyone to isolate ourselves, and ICE is creating more opportunities for contagion, at a time when we are asking our neighbors to have more trust and attention to federal public safety officials.”

Earlier this month, ICE detained suspected undocumented immigrants in Raleigh and Charlotte, Garces said. Siembra NC isn’t aware of any ICE enforcement actions in Winston-Salem so far this month, he said.

In January and early February, ICE agents detained three Winston-Salem residents who are suspected of living in the U.S. illegally, Garces had said.

Williams declined to comment on any recent ICE activity anywhere in North Carolina, saying that the agency doesn’t discuss its operations.

Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. of Forsyth County announced in February 2019 that his office will continue to work with federal law-enforcement agencies, but it would end a contract that allows ICE agents to extend jail time for people suspected of being undocumented immigrants in the Forsyth County Jail.

“We are busy serving and protecting our residents in the community during this state of emergency,” said Christina Howell, a spokeswoman for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office. “ICE is conducting (its) business. We are conducting ours.”

N.C. confirmed cases of COVID-19 climbs to 255; no new cases in Forsyth, but first in Davie

The number of officially confirmed cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina jumped again Sunday to 255, including the first in Davie County.

But counting figures of confirmed cases provided by individual county health departments, there are likely 298 cases statewide.

There were no confirmed deaths in N.C. from the novel coronavirus with Sunday’s update from state Department of Health and Human Services.

By comparison, there were 33 cases statewide a week ago. The biggest factor is the gradual increase of individuals being tested for the virus.

The number of cases in Forsyth County remained at 12 on Sunday. Altogether, there are 28 in the Triad and Northwest N.C.: 11 in Guilford, two in Watauga and one each in Alamance, Davidson and Davie.

It can take 24 to 48 hours for the cases reported by individual counties to be included in the state figures.

According to Sunday’s DHHS count, Mecklenburg County leads the state with 66 cases, but its health department cites 77. Wake County is listed with 40 by DHHS, but 49 by its health department.

Wake tightens restrictions

On Sunday, Wake health officials tightened a state of emergency by prohibiting public gatherings of 50 or more individuals. Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order prohibits public gatherings of at least 100 for eight weeks, and makes it a criminal violation.

Wake also ordered that public businesses such as gyms, salons, tattoo parlors and spas be closed beginning Monday. Those restrictions will be in effect through at least April 30.

Darshan Patel, director of Wake’s Emergency Operations Center, told The News & Observer of Raleigh that stricter rules, such as shelter-in-place, is “a tool in the toolbox” that could kick in if the county sees continued spread of the virus.

But for now the idea, Patel said, is to give enhanced social distancing time to work.

“This is a challenging time, and it requires us to make difficult decisions to keep Wake County residents safe,” Wake commissioner Chairman Greg Ford said in statement.

There are cases of the novel coronavirus in at least 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, including four in counties (Buncombe, Franklin, Montgomery and Nash) not cited by DHHS but confirmed by their health departments.

At least 6,438 COVID-19 tests have been completed in the state as of the Sunday morning briefing. Burlington-based LabCorp announced earlier this week it had the capacity to test 20,000 people a day.

Forsyth update

In Sunday’s briefing, Forsyth Department of Public Health attributed two local cases of COVID-19 to community spread, meaning the person contracted the virus without having traveled outside of the county and wasn’t knowingly in close contact with someone who has it.

Joshua Swift, the county’s health director, plans his next detailed briefing for 2 p.m. Thursday at the beginning of the county commissioners meeting.

The NCDHHS COVID-19 helpline can be reached at (866) 462-3821.

On Friday, Winston-Salem State University announced one its non-residential students, meaning a student who does not live on campus, tested positive for COVID-19.

Health officials expect the case total to grow locally now that there is evidence of community spread.

“This is why it is crucial that people practice social distancing, hand washing, refrain from mass gatherings and monitor themselves for signs and symptoms which are cough, fever and shortness of breath,” Swift said.

“If you believe you have been in contact with someone that has been exposed to COVID-19, voluntarily quarantine yourself.”

Although seven of Forsyth’s 12 cases can be attributed to travel or close contact with a person who has the virus, four cases are being investigated by the health department to determine if they are a result of community spread.

The health department has not released any information about where the person who contracted COVID-19 via community spread had visited in recent days.

County approves remote meeting rules

The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners can now meet over the telephone if they need to during the coronavirus pandemic.

By unanimous vote, commissioners approved new meeting rules on Thursday that allow any member, or all of them, to use electronic means to take part in a meeting, as long as it is during a state of emergency.

Under the former rules, a quorum of the board — four members — had to be physically present in order for any other members to take part in a meeting using the telephone or some other electronic method.

That rule still holds unless the county is in a state of emergency. Both Forsyth County and Winston-Salem are in states of emergency because of coronavirus.

Thursday’s meeting took place in unusual circumstances.

County officials had reduced the number of chairs in the room to 50, so that the meeting would stay within the 50-person limit that county officials had imposed in their reading of Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

The chairs were widely separated to give each person sitting in one at least 6 feet of air space around. The exception was on the dias, where commissioners were clearly not sitting at least 6 feet apart in all cases.

The microphone at the speaker’s stand had been cleansed, and a line taped on the carpet to keep speakers back from the microphone.

County staffers counted people as they came into the room. As the meeting convened, 46 people were in the room.

With not a lot on the agenda, the number of people in the room went down after the county health director gave his weekly report, then went to the lobby to talk with reporters who also left the room at the end of his report.

As the board discussed their remote participation policy, Commissioner Don Martin questioned whether the general guidelines were properly set, given that they might not allow board members to take part remotely if they happened to be out of town for a wedding or some similar event.

“I think we have excellent attendance and are accountable to our constituents,” Martin said. “I don’t think we need to be proclaiming why we are missing the meeting and why we have to participate remotely when we’re available ... I believe I can think about as well on the phone as here.”

No other member of the board had a similar concern, so the commissioners then approved the new policy.

Meanwhile, governmental meetings in Winston-Salem are on hold until April.

Winston-Salem officials are using the stricter 10-person maximum that the White House announced on March 16 in its “15 Days to Slow the Spread” initiative.

City Manager Lee Garrity said the city is looking at ways to set up city council meetings so that no more than 10 people are in the room.

Meanwhile, Forsyth County towns and villages were also canceling meetings.

In Kernersville, the town has canceled all committee meetings and meetings of the board of aldermen through the entire month of April. The meeting of the board of aldermen on May 5 was also canceled.

Clemmons has canceled meetings until further notice, while Lewisville has called off meetings through April 15. The Lewisville town hall is also closed for in-person visits.

Rural Hall’s town hall is still open but foot traffic is discouraged. The town council’s next meeting is scheduled for April 13, but no decision has been made yet on whether to meet. The Walkertown meeting on March 26 is canceled and the town hall is closed to foot traffic.

Bethania has closed the town hall and visitor’s center. Tobaccoville has canceled April committees but hasn’t decided whether to cancel the April meeting of the board.