With the novel coronavirus upending society, Rachel Schuyler felt like a sitting duck. At the Bexar County lockup in downtown San Antonio, she lacked supplies like hand sanitizer and cringed each time a dormmate coughed. On April 3, she was finally released—one day after county officials announced a deputy at the jail had tested positive for the virus, the first of at least 23 cases among staff and inmates at the facility. But Schuyler’s problems weren’t over: She had no house or apartment awaiting her. By the following day, she was living under a highway overpass in the midst of a global pandemic.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, inmates and advocates have called for swift reductions in the prison and jail populations to avoid outbreaks. Some county officials and judges have responded by using plea deals or personal bonds to bring down the numbers, a trend that’s sparked a backlash from Governor Greg Abbott. But just because someone escapes the cramped, unsanitary conditions of incarceration doesn’t mean she has a safe place to go to protect herself from the coronavirus.
A 2008 study found that about 15 percent of individuals in U.S. jails were homeless in the year prior to arrest; each year, tens of thousands enter homeless shelters directly after exiting correctional facilities. There is, in fact, a vicious cycle between incarceration and homelessness. The unhoused, who frequently face laws that criminalize their very existence, are 11 times more likely to get locked up than the rest of the population, according to a 2019 report from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Meanwhile, the formerly incarcerated, who often face employment and housing discrimination, are 10 times more likely to be homeless than those with clean records.
It’s routine for county and state jails to simply release the unhoused with no real plan, says Laurie Pherigo of the Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable. “If they were intermittently homeless when they got there, then unless they’ve formed a really awesome relationship with someone who will give them housing, they’re SOL—and it’s a big gap in our services,” Pherigo says. Now, with COVID-19 claiming over 24,000 lives in the United States, that gap is even more perilous than usual.
Schuyler, a 30-year-old born in Tennessee and raised in San Antonio, was arrested in late January in Travis County on a warrant for a 2018 charge she says arose when she cashed a fraudulent check she received for work performed on a construction site. Over the next 8 weeks—as the coronavirus changed from a far-away problem to a national crisis—Schuyler remained in the Travis County jail, anxiously eyeing new arrivals and wishing she had more cleaning supplies. Then, as the county jail population was being swiftly reduced, she was able to bond out in late March. But thanks to a different warrant in Bexar County, stemming from a 2016 incident in which she says she used a fake ID to cash a check, she didn’t actually go free.
Despite the non-violent nature of her charges, she was transferred to Bexar County to deal with the old case. After a week locked up in San Antonio—in a jail that Schuyler describes as “really, really dirty” and where she says reusable sporks get distributed with food still on them after cleaning—a judge agreed to a time-served sentence on her state jail felony charge. Eager to get out and be done with the case once and for all, Schuyler pleaded no contest. (A county spokesperson says that all units and kitchenware at the jail are being sanitized “in accordance with guidelines established to prevent transmission of COVID-19.”)
For Schuyler, freedom meant being released late at night, then walking almost an hour south of the jail to the house of another woman released at the same time, where she spent the night. The next day, she found a ride back to Austin.
Chris Harris, a campaign coordinator at the civil rights advocacy group Texas Appleseed, says we should avoid bouncing inmates around the state during COVID-19. “The last thing we need to be doing right now is transferring people from one jail to another, from one potential vector of disease to another,” Harris says. Without commenting on the specifics of Schuyler’s case, Harris also voices a worry that the virus could give prosecutors an unfair upper hand: “It’s a big concern right now that folks are in fear of contracting coronavirus in jail, so they can be talked into a plea deal just so they can get out.”
When I met Schuyler last week, she was standing beside a frontage road in North Austin with a miniature bottle of hand sanitizer and a cardboard sign that read “Have a blessed day!” For her, being released into a world of quarantines and social distancing has been unsettling. “Everything’s in the wind right now,” she tells me, as we chat approximately six feet apart from one another. “I don’t know how long this will last; for all we know, this could be the end of the world!”
Being homeless is always inconvenient, but even more so during a pandemic. Crowded by design, homeless shelters across the nation are seeing cases of COVID-19, including both of Austin’s major downtown shelters. Many agencies have scaled back services, and it’s harder to make money panhandling when people fear human contact. Schuyler adds that she is on an affordable housing waitlist, but the housing authority has paused move-ins. Friendly businesses that allow use of bathrooms or electrical outlets may be closed, and, though the City of Austin recently provided handwashing stations to homeless camps, hygiene is generally a challenge on the streets.
Harris, the Texas Appleseed advocate, says that we should be letting the homeless make use of the thousands of empty hotel rooms across the country, and working to make sure that those who lack reliable mailing addresses and bank accounts can still receive cash assistance. “We need to be housing all unsheltered individuals, including those released from jail,” he says. “What everyone needs is a place to go and a government check that gets sent to them.”
For Schuyler, homelessness isn’t new. She’s lived unhoused off and on since she was a teenager, when, she says, she fled a number of abusive homes within Texas’ scandal-plagued foster care system. “The streets of San Antonio raised me,” Schuyler says. She’s had brushes with the law before, but her recent plea made her a felon for the first time, which exposes her to new discrimination.
Schuyler also has another problem: She has a young kid currently in Child Protective Services custody. Last week, a judge suspended face-to-face visits with her child due to the risk of COVID-19—and that’s painful for Schuyler. She’s eager to regain custody, but she’s worried about how long it will take to complete the necessary steps—which she says include taking parenting classes, plus finding a job and stable housing—during a pandemic of unknown length.
With her warrants finally off her back, Schuyler says she’s in a position to start getting her life on track. She has work experience in construction and home health care, and she’s motivated. She’s made contact with Austin’s Integral Care, a nonprofit that can help her with some next steps. All she has to do is stare down the Cerberus of homelessness, former incarceration, and a worldwide pandemic. “I just need a fighting chance,” she says.
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