On the frontlines of one of the county’s most vulnerable populations, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office’s Homeless Outreach Team is spreading awareness and providing essential supplies to homeless populations amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
According to Deputy Gregory Temple, the team is continuing day-to-day outreach operations, including providing daily necessities such as food and bottled water. As a response to the pandemic, however, the team is now also distributing hand sanitizer, masks and informational pamphlets about the coronavirus to homeless individuals.
“We normally would educate them on trying to help them get mental health or substance abuse help, getting into a shelter, those things, but now, we're educating them on COVID-19,” Temple said. “They don't have access to televisions, and they don't have access to all the media devices that we have access to.”
Despite the team’s efforts to emphasize the importance of social distancing to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus, Temple said many homeless individuals continue to congregate in encampments that can range from two to 12 people in size. Without official social distancing laws in place, Temple said it can be difficult for law enforcement to enforce social distancing on any county residents, let alone those who are homeless.
“That's why it's important for us to make these [homeless] encampment visits frequently, so we can tell them, ‘Hey, it's not okay for all of y'all to be in this encampment together; it's not okay for y'all to huddle up together,’” Temple said.
In the field, Temple said HOT deputies can see as many as 10-20 people per day when conducting outreach.
“We normally make contact with [homeless] consumers on a daily basis underneath bridges, in encampments, standing on street corners,” Temple said. “We're always washing our hands, constantly using [hand] sanitizer, but now since the COVID-19 virus, there's extra steps that we need to take.”
To protect themselves from exposure, Temple said deputies are taking care to wear masks and maintain social distance when interacting with homeless individuals. According to Temple, these new additions to the daily uniform can make conducting outreach less personal.
“When you see me get out of my patrol car, and I got a mask on, I got gloves on, I got [hand] sanitizer in my pocket, I got goggles around my eyes—it takes away that personal relationship you have with them,” Temple said. “They may still know us, but it’s not as trusting as it was prior to the virus.”
Temple said while supplies are in good stock for now, he looks forward to more helping hands. Temple said the team expects four new deputies to join the team over the next two weeks.
“I just want to say that I am with a great team,” Temple said. “We're very grateful to our sheriff for giving us the opportunity to do something that we love to do, and that's helping other people. ... This is not a job for us. It's a ministry; we enjoy doing it.”
Those who are interested in donating supplies to the Homeless Outreach Team can contact Temple at 281-409-2143.