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Star of Hope

We really can track COVID-19 through wastewater

This is terrific news.

Researchers with the city, Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine were able to sniff out a potential second outbreak of COVID-19 at a homeless shelter in downtown Houston earlier this year by looking down its drains instead of in people’s noses, health officials said Thursday.

Quashing the resurgence at the Star of Hope Men’s Shelter earlier this year was one of the first successes of an effort to track the novel coronavirus through wastewater, city officials said Thursday. The initiative, one of several occurring around the country, attempts to spot outbreaks by sampling water at city treatment facilities, which could help officials tailor their testing and prevention efforts to specific neighborhoods.

To date, the results from testing wastewater largely have aligned with those from nasal swab testing, said Dr. Loren Hopkins, the city’s chief environmental science officer. That has increased the confidence that the wastewater sampling is accurate. The benefit, she said, is that wastewater tests produce quicker results.

“Ultimately, the goal is to develop an early warning system allowing the health department to identify the city’s COVID-19 hot spots sooner and put measures in place to the slow the spread of this virus,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

People shed the virus through feces, regardless of whether they experience symptoms. The city was able to detect the virus in the shelter by placing a sampler on the manhole outside the facility after its initial outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

The ability to home in on a single building still is limited, Hopkins said. City officials have deployed that strategy for the shelter and the Harris County Jail, and they are trying to acquire more equipment to expand the effort in the fall. The health department plans to begin testing long-term care facilities, for example.

[…]

So far, there has been a strong correlation between the viral load in the wastewater and the positivity rates by nasal tests, so the method has not unearthed large swaths of the virus that have gone undetected by tests. Still, that correlation has increased confidence that the wastewater analysis is accurate and can be used as a bellwether for future outbreaks.

From Sept. 7 to Sept. 14, for example, scientists found the virus was increasing in a statistically significant way in the communities served by the Tidwell Timber, Upper Brays and Forest Cove treatment plants, among others, while decreasing in District 23, White Oak and Homestead.

That information, coupled with the local positivity rate and other factors, helped the health department decide where to send strike teams to test people, conduct outreach and provide education about the virus. The city said the wastewater study has resulted in more testing at several congregant living centers.

See here and here for the background. This method is extra useful because it provides a more focused view of where the cases are clustering, and the testing is faster, so the response to the test results is also faster. If we are ever going to get a handle on this disease, especially before there’s a vaccine but also after one is available, it’s going to come from technology like this that gives a real-time and location-specific view of where the virus is happening. We should be rooting for this to ramp up as much and as quickly as possible. Kudos to all for making this happen. The Press has more.

Sobering center opens up

Good.

Photo from Swamplot.com

Mayor Annise Parker joined council members on Thursday to unveil the innovative Houston Recovery Center, a place where people who are intoxicated can sober up instead of being arrested. Officials say there’s only one other similar facility in Texas.

“Turns out that a significant percentage of the people we were putting in jail, were there for being generally inappropriate in public because they were under the influence of some sort of substance,” Parker said. “I don’t need them in my jail, and they don’t need the criminal record. They need help.”

Anyone brought by police to the 24-hour “sobering center” on North Chenevert Street in downtown will stay a minimum of four hours and leave without an arrest record. Recovery support specialists trained to deal with people suffering from substance abuse addiction will also offer exit counseling.

“The center will provide a kind of forced intervention and education experience for those who enter the doors,” said Leonard Kincaid, the recovery center’s director of operations. “What we will do is lead them on a pathway to recovery.”

Only those who have committed no other crimes and have no outstanding warrants will be given the option by police officers to be taken to the facility. Once there, they must clear health screenings, surrender belongings and wait to be sober.

The city spent $3 million in voter-approved public safety bonds to renovate the warehouse and will pay Star of Hope Mission $1.5 million a year to lease and staff the facility.

Two rooms were built to house 84 men and women separately. A sleeping cot and basic linens will be provided, but as Kincaid said, the facility was designed for safety, not comfort.

See here, here, here, here, and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. Besides being a good idea in its own right, opening this facility is a necessary step towards getting the city out of the jail business. I understand that there is progress being made on a joint city-county processing center, which is the other purpose of the city jail, and if all goes well that could lead to the eventual closing of the city jail. One point to keep in mind is that the Harris County Jail is no longer overcrowded, which was an obstacle to doing this kind of partnership in the past. They didn’t have enough room for their own inmates, so there was no question of taking on someone else’s inmates. That’s no longer an issue. I’m hopeful this project can proceed to its logical conclusion. Swamplot has more, and via Council Member Ed Gonzales you can see some photos from the inside of the center here.

Council approves funding for sobering center

Good.

City Council agreed Wednesday to spend $4.3 million to outfit a warehouse at Star of Hope Mission and $353,000 a year to operate it as a place to take drunks instead of jail.

City officials expect the 84-bed facility to open later this year and justified the expense on the hope that it will save money by diverting thousands of people from expensive and time-consuming jail bookings.

Police officers who detain people whose only crime is being drunk in public will have the option of dropping them off at the so-called sobering center for at least a four-hour stay without an arrest on their record. Because the drop-offs are much quicker than jail bookings, police would return to patrol sooner.

The Mayor’s press release has the key numbers plus some more details:

The city’s annual cost to lease, maintain and staff the new center is estimated to be $1.5 million, compared to the $4-6 million currently being spent to process public intoxication cases at the city jail.

The Houston Center for Sobriety will be an alternative to jail for people detained for public intoxication, allowing the opportunity to regain sobriety in a safe, medically-monitored environment. The Houston Police Department (HPD), Houston Department of Health and Human Services and Houston Fire Department (HFD) will provide city services at the site. In addition, the building will also house the Houston Police Department’s Mental Health Unit, bringing together staff dispersed throughout the city into one location.

A 501(c)3 foundation will also be created to aid in future fundraising for operations and possible future expansion.

See here for some background. This should pay for itself in a couple of years, and it moves the city a step closer to exiting the jail business. Good work all around.

The Mayor’s office on the homeless feeding ordinance

As you know, I have been running a series of guest posts on a variety of topics. When I invited Nick Cooper to write about his experiences with the homeless feeding ordinance, I also contacted the Mayor’s office to ask if there was someone they could point me to that would write about their experiences. Ultimately they sent me the following, which came from their office.

Contrary to the inaccurate information being circulated by various groups and individuals, it is not illegal to feed the homeless in the Houston.

The City appreciates those who take part in the charitable act of providing food for those in need and agrees that such activities are of benefit to the health, safety and welfare of our community. There is recognition that those who are unable to provide food for themselves often must be fed outdoors by entities dedicated to providing charitable food service. There are no restrictions on an individual who is moved to share food with another. It applies only when sharing food with six or more.

The city also recognizes the rights of property owners.

There are 38 known local groups and organizations that provide food service to the homeless or others in need of a free meal. Some of these organizations, like the Star of Hope, Palmer Way Station, Bread of Life and the Salvation Army, feed inside their facilities. They have licensed kitchens, trained volunteer staff, are in compliance with the city’s health and safety standards and they feed the hungry on a well-known and routine schedule.

Unfortunately, there are many other street food service operations that do not adhere to routine schedules. For example, there is one location, east of I-59 near the convention center, at which a dozen different charitable organizations line up every Saturday morning all seeking to provide breakfast to the same group of people. There is more than needed for the homeless who show up. In the end, a lot of it winds up left behind on the ground – creating a nuisance for property owners. No one wants to see our streets littered with trash.

With the above principles in mind, Houston City Council last spring amended Chapter 20 of the Code of Ordinances. The only mandatory addition to the revised ordinance is a requirement to obtain written permission from a property owner, public or private, before utilizing the property for charitable food service. Again, despite arguments to the contrary, this new requirement is not onerous. In fact, three organizations have requested and been granted permission from the Houston Department of Health and Human Services Department (HDHHS) for food service events at a city-owned property at 205 Chartres Street.

The amended ordinance also created the voluntary Recognized Charitable Food Service Provider Program. This voluntary initiative, jointly coordinated by the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County and HDHHS, put in place a process of coordination, training and recognition for those individuals and organizations which provide such food services. The goals are to improve the quality, quantity and availability of food for those who may not have the resources to provide for themselves. In short, its aim is to coordinate volunteer efforts so that the needed amount of food is available at known serving locations.

There has been good response to the free-of-charge food safety classes. The first classes were held at HDHHS on June 7 and at The Beacon on June 23. Staff from the Coalition explained the Coalition’s role in the program, and HDHHS staff provided the food safety training. Twenty four people, representing thirteen organizations, have attended a class to date. Future classes are scheduled for the 4th Saturday of each month through November at The Beacon. To register for one of these classes call HDHHS at 832-393-5100. Information about the program is also available at that number or on the HDHHS Website, http://www.houstontx.gov/health/homeless.html.

Organizations desiring to participate in the program are required to:

  • Register basic contact information with the City of Houston
  • Cooperate with the City in scheduling any food service event at which five or more individuals will be fed
  • Follow basic hygiene, sanitation and food safety rules provided by HDHHS
  • Have at least one person at each food service site who has completed the free training in sanitary food preparation at HDHHS
  • Authorize inspections by HDHHS of their kitchens, transport vehicle and the like
  • Implement changes suggested by HDHHS
  • Clean up after each food service event

The names and addresses of organizations that abide by the above requirements will be listed on the City’s website. In addition, they will be entitled to use their designation as a Recognized Charitable Food Service Provider in their publications.

Registration and coordination of street feeding operations is not a new concept. Ten of the largest US cities already require it, and nine of these cities also require routine inspection for adherence to public health standards. In Houston, we took a Houston approach. We identified a problem and then listened to the community for feedback. The end result is a workable program that allows for coordination and ensures property is not abused. This approach in no way inhibits the many acts of charity conducted daily by Houstonians.

Sober up

This seems like a sensible idea.

City officials plan to open a “sobering center” at the Star of Hope Mission downtown later this year. It would be an 84-bed facility that would allow people whose only offense is being drunk to bypass jail.

Houston police arrest 19,000 people a year for public intoxication, racking up $4 million to $6 million in jail costs. A sobering center aims to divert drunks from jail and free up cells for more dangerous offenders. Dropping off a person at the center, instead of booking him into jail, also would let officers t return to patrol more quickly.

A person brought to the sobering center would have to stay at least four hours, until he sobers up, and would not have an arrest put on his record.

“Jail should be for violent people that we need to get off the street,” not a place to merely sober up, said Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former city police officer who has championed the sobering center idea.

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Under the plan, the city would pay Star of Hope $1.5 million a year to lease and staff a two-story warehouse behind the Star of Hope’s Ruiz Street men’s shelter by the Eastex Freeway, north of Minute Maid Park.

The Houston Police Department would move its mental health unit to the center. The city would finance the $3 million needed to convert the warehouse, currently used to store donations, into a shelter and offices with voter-approved public safety bonds.

The city spends about $25 million a year to run two jails. The city stands to save millions a year if it can offload a substantial portion of its public drunkenness cases to a facility where the detainees do not have to be fed nor as closely monitored as they would be in jail.

Here’s a press release on this. The city jails, and ways to reduce costs on them, were a subject of the Mayor’s inaugural speech. These people are generally only a danger to themselves, so dealing with them in a way that is more humane and less expensive makes all kinds of sense. There are details to be worked out – liability, what to do with someone who refuses to go or becomes belligerant, and so forth – but the idea of de-criminalizing things that are more nuisance than menace is sound, and will hopefully bring the city one step closer to getting out of the jail business. Hair Balls has more.

UPDATE: Grits has more.