28 de marzo de 2020
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Hispanic World

Public bathrooms for homeless, front line of defense vs. coronavirus in Miami

By Ivonne Malaver

By Ivonne Malaver

Miami, Mar 23 (efe-epa).- As a cleaner and supervisor of public bathrooms for the homeless in downtown Miami, Cuban-American Juan Portela, a former university football player, feels that he is on the "front line of defense" for a community to which he himself once belonged and which is one of the most vulnerable amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus "has no social class," Portela told EFE. He keeps public bathrooms clean not only for the many homeless but also for tourists strolling around the city - although the latter are in short supply these days.

The bathrooms he takes care of are located in a park on the shores of Biscayne Bay.

Portela knows what it's like to beg to use the toilet in a restaurant or shopping center - which now are closed by government order - and he doesn't forget about that now that he's in charge of a set of bathrooms with two groups of toilets and sinks.

The former quarterback for the Kentucky Wildcats, who led his team to victory in 1979 against the University of Florida Gators, got involved with alcohol and drugs at age 21 after having had a "good career and a good family," noting that he got his B.A. in management. Things fell apart for him, though, and he wound up living on the streets for a few months.

In Miami-Dade County, there are at least 1,008 people who are living on the streets and another 2,464 who are "homeless in shelters," Homeless Trust - an organization overseen by county authorities - told EFE.

"We're on the street 24 hours a day, we're dirty, we need to go to the bathroom, we need to wash our hands and we have no place to do so, because when you go inside somewhere, you have to buy something and after that, if they let you use the bathroom, they say it got damaged," Portela said.

While he takes great pains to keep the bathrooms he oversees sparkling clean and tidy and distributes containers of hand sanitizer, Portela says that he knows the risk of exposing oneself to too much "contact."

"I'm on the front line, I have to be cautious," he emphasized.

"With the virus outbreak, cleanliness and health have become a priority," Miami City Counselor Manolo Reyes, the head of the municipal entity that oversees the public bathrooms that Portela is in charge of, told EFE.

"We're all facing a critical situation, and for the most vulnerable, like the homeless, it's a matter of life and death," Reyes emphasized.

Due to the rapid spread of the new virus through the city, the Miami Downtown Development Authority, which in 2015 inaugurated the two sets of bathrooms as part of the "Pit Stop" pilot program, is now seeking to facilitate the delivery of four others in the next two months.

The expansion will allow there to be personnel keeping the public restrooms clean 18 hours a day.

Portela told EFE that starting at 6 am, when the police get the homeless up from wherever they are sleeping on the streets and he opens the bathrooms, they form lines to get inside to wash up and use the facilities.

"If people give you the opportunity to work, you can change your life," Portela said, adding that he is grateful to the DDA for his job and feels that he has gotten his life back because now he has work, a car, a house and his family around him.

When asked if he'll ever get back to football, he laughs and says that when he cleans the bathrooms he knows that his muscles are still in good shape.

In 2019, there were more than 560,000 homeless people in the US, about 15,000 more than the year before, according to US housing authorities.

Miami-Dade County authorities told EFE that the homeless are the group most vulnerable to the coronavirus because, aside from their precarious living situation, because of the excess demand created by Covid-19 there are presently not enough disinfectants and handwipes, which the homeless make significant use of due to the lack of public showers.

Homeless Trust president Ron Book told EFE that the challenges posed by the coronavirus to the homeless community "are substantial" given that many of them have chronic health problems, are elderly and "really don't understand social distancing."

He said that Homeless trust is trying to educate the homeless about isolating oneself as a preventive measure and is distributing hand sanitizer and disinfectant towelettes to them, along with establishing protocols for entry into shelters so that authorities know where they've been and with whom.

Miami Rescue Mission head Antonio Villasuco said that his private organization - which provides shelter for people suffering from "depression, lack of money, drugs and alcohol" - is concerned about a possible increase in the number of homeless due to the economic destabilization Covid-19 is causing.

EFE News

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