MSF concludes COVID-19 activities in New York

Staff members wait for the first visitors on opening day of MSF's shower trailer in Manhattan. MSF is offering free warm showers to the homeless and other people who currently lack access to hygiene facilities during the pandemic.
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Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has concluded its COVID-19 activities in New York City, handing over one of its relief stations to a local organization and ending its infection prevention and health promotion activities.

In New York City, MSF partnered with local organizations to support at-risk groups by improving infection prevention and control (IPC) measures in facilities serving people who are homeless or housing insecure, improving access to services through distribution of phones, and operating relief stations where people experiencing homelessness could have safe access to hygiene facilities.

MSF worked with a network of organizations to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus among people living in supportive housing. Many of these buildings are older with narrow corridors and small elevators where it is difficult to socially distance. Often residents share kitchens and bathrooms, posing significant challenges for preventing COVID-19 transmission. People living in these facilities frequently have underlying conditions that place them at higher risk of complications if they contract COVID-19.

“Organizations were struggling to figure out how to protect residents and staff in their facilities,” said Michelle Mays, MSF project coordinator. “But we've had great collaboration, brainstorming, and thinking creatively to find solutions which can keep people safe as much as possible in these conditions and through these difficult times.”

MSF teams conducted site visits, webinars, and remote briefings on infection prevention and control and provided more than 150 handwashing stations to supportive housing organizations. MSF also supported some homeless shelters and soup kitchens with handwashing stations, mask distribution, and health promotion activities.

As in-person services closed across the city, access to phones and computers became essential for all New Yorkers.  However, many do not have reliable access to technology and therefore could not access vital services. MSF worked with local organizations to distribute more than 1000 cell phones.

“When we began operations, we very quickly saw big needs among the homeless population in New York City,” said Mays. “There are about 80,000 homeless people in New York City. And a few thousand of those people sleep on the streets every night. While the entire city was being told to stay home to protect themselves, where were homeless people supposed to go? Many people chose not to stay in shelters because it is difficult to socially distance and isolate in congregate environments. They didn’t feel safe.”

For people who couldn’t or did not feel safe going to shelters, following recommended hygiene and handwashing practices became even more difficult after the city shut down and closed public facilities and restrooms in March.

Recognizing this need at the height of the pandemic, MSF opened temporary relief stations in Manhattan, offering a safe place to shower. The stations included a shower trailer and portable toilets. At the station, MSF and partners from Coalition for the Homeless and other NYC organizations provided visitors with toiletries, socks, non-medical grade masks, and information about social and emergency services. As of June 27, MSF had provided more than 2700 showers at two facilities in midtown Manhattan and Harlem.

Shower Power, a local non profit organization,  will continue to run the station in Harlem.

““Access to showers and hygiene facilities is a long standing issue in New York City,” said Mays. “It's something that predates the pandemic, but which became critical when all public facilities were shut down. We are really fortunate to have found an organization that can take this over and keep this work going.”

Go to Shower Power for more information about how to support these ongoing efforts.