Providing Masks Is Commendable, But The People Of Winston Have Greater Needs

Winston’s city leaders are a little too proud of the job they are doing distributing masks. Masking the City, distributing hundreds of thousands of masks around the city, is an accomplishment. It’s important work during a pandemic. But it’s not an accomplishment comparable to D-Day. Don Flow, Allen Joines’ right-hand man at the Alliance, actually said, “you might say this is our D-Day event for Winston-Salem” at a Mask the City press conference earlier this month. D-Day played a vital role in the liberation of France from Nazi occupiers. Or at least it played a role. The Soviet Red Army defeated Nazi Germany in WWII. To date, Renfro’s smartly designed masks have failed to kill a single Nazis.


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(Cops these days are armed to the teeth-they sometimes look like soldiers.)

Don Flow isn’t the only one in Winston championing Mask the City. When asked what he said on a recent call to Mike Pence, Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch said that he pitched Pence on Winston’s Mask the City initiative. Sure, distributing masks is a big step up for a city with decades of experience distributing cigarettes (the deadliest consumer product ever invented). But I don’t think it’s something that we are going to tell our grandchildren about.

“When I was asked to share my perspective, I highlighted the ‘Mask the City’ initiative and shared the creativity, collaboration and unity of the Winston-Salem community.” -Nathan Hatch

We should expect more from our civic leaders than some free facemasks. Housing needs are going unmet in our community. Hotels across Winston-Salem should be utilized to house the houseless. That’s how you reduce the spread of a virus; you provide shelter for people who need shelter. Masking the city, while ignoring or minimizing housing needs is one reason that Winston-Salem now has an alarming spike in COVID-19 diagnoses.

For weeks now, the City of Winston-Salem has been sheltering “medically fragile” individuals at an undisclosed hotel. Earlier this month, during May’s Finance Committee meeting, city officials made clear that the City of Winston-Salem was not hotelling anyone who has tested positive to COVID-19 or was awaiting the results of COVID-19 testing. Forsyth County is sheltering COVID-19 patients in a separate hotel. The City has rented out 60 rooms at a hotel, with an option to increase that number to 80 rooms. As of May 11, the City reported that 53 of the 60 rooms under contract were being utilized.

The City is still working primarily with shelters during this crisis to handle the houseless (United Way/Bethesda Center/City with Dwellings). They rejected demands that Housing Justice Now and other activist groups made back in March for a mass hotelling program until the spread of COVID-19 is under control. Due to the City’s inaction, individuals in precarious circumstances are having to pay outrageous sums of money to hotel and motel proprietors.

“This is about $4,000 a month per person. You could rent a very nice apartment for a lot less than that.” 
-Robert Clark, May 11, Finance Committee meeting.

The City is also paying a whopping sum of money to the hotel that it contracted with-though FEMA is expected to reimburse them. Community Development Director Marla Newman estimates that on a monthly basis renting an average of 60 hotel rooms for the medically fragile cost $103,000. Three meals a day and various support services cost the City another $48,500 a month. Twenty-four-hour security runs $65,000 a month. And biohazard cleaning and laundry service run a mere $10,000 per month.

That’s $229,500 per month to operate the medically fragile shelter. Money that we wouldn’t have to throw away if we had more public housing available for those who need it.

The City expects to run its hotel shelter for 60-90 days until FEMA pulls the plug on the operation. The City of Winston-Salem is following the federal government’s lead on this. But there is more that the City of Winston-Salem could do. They have a sweat-heart deal with the Twin City Quarter to manage the Benton Convention Center. Also, the Twin City Quarter has benefited from the tens of millions of dollars that taxpayers invested into restoring the Benton recently. The City could easily tell the Twin City Quarter that if they want to keep managing the Benton, then they are going to have to shelter the houseless in an emergency such as the one we are now experiencing.

The City of Winston-Salem’s efforts to house the homeless during a pandemic has been woefully inadequate, given the fact that we have so many vulnerable people in our community at a time when hotels are empty. But their mask program is going well!

This hotel closed temporarily due to COVID-19. It’s an example of hotel rooms that are being unused despite the need.
CARF - COVID Homelessness Funding ESG and CDBG
Press release—Housing Justice Now
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