Every homeless shelter in Dallas requires a negative test for COVID-19 for people seeking a bed, a task that can prove difficult for homeless individuals. Until recently the only tests shelters accepted took two or three days to kick back results. A lot can happen in that time, especially to someone experiencing homelessness.
But it's getting easier. Wayne Walker, the minister and founder of the Dallas-based OurCalling nonprofit, said his organization has been able to test and shelter homeless individuals faster than ever, thanks to new tests. Developed by Abbott Laboratories, they're called BinaxNow tests, and the state recently sent 6,000 of them to OurCalling. "It's changed the game completely," Walker said.
Located at 1702 Caesar Chavez Blvd., OurCalling's facility is the main site administering the tests to those seeking shelter. Tests are administered 9 a.m.-noon Monday through Friday .
Walker and his colleagues never knew if the person would be able to make it back to get their results. If they didn't get back fast enough, the results might be “stale,” meaning they may no longer be accurate, and the shelters won't take people in at that point. “Imagine you’re sleeping outside, you may not be able to get back to get your results. Or you lost the paperwork," he said. "It’s just really complicated.”
They worked with the city to try to get homeless individuals quarantined in a hotel while they waited for their results, but this wasn't always possible, and it added another step in the process.
Before the new tests became available, Walker said, they were struggling to get even just a few people into shelters. In the three weeks his team has been administering the rapid tests, they've been able to get over 200 people in shelters and off the streets.
The speedier process comes just in time for what's expected to be a week of freezing weather. With that in mind, Walker said his organization is trying to fill every shelter bed and register people for different alternatives to sleeping outside. As efficient as the process has become, the reality remains: There are more people who need beds than available spaces in Dallas shelters.
"We know we’re going to run out of beds at some point," Walker says. "We always do. But that’s a bigger issue that can’t be solved today."
One of the shelters OurCalling sends people to is Austin Street Center. Its mission is to provide safe shelter for the most vulnerable people, said Daniel Roby, the center's CEO.
"During a time of this national pandemic, the homeless are more vulnerable than they’ve ever been, and we know the safest place for someone is to be in their own home," Roby said. "But if we can’t engage them in our shelter environment, how do we even start that process?"
Austin Street Center initially had to raise funds to pay a contractor to conduct rapid tests, but testing wasn't consistent. It would start and stop based on the available funds.
Roby said they knew this wasn't going to work long-term. They needed a more widespread approach that would help all of the city's emergency shelters. And OurCalling stepped up to the challenge. "There’s been a great collaborative effort between multiple parties, namely OurCalling and the phenomenal work they do there," Roby said.
As the pandemic has pressed on, it has compounded the city's homelessness problems. Before the virus broke out, Walker and his team saw 20-30 new people a week. That number is now as high as 150 some weeks.