The team at Mary’s Place in Seattle is checking the temperatures of hundreds of guests and staff at their family shelters each day. It’s also increased its cleaning schedules and identified isolation areas in case anyone should exhibit symptoms of coronavirus.
It’s the new normal, according to Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place, which has 830 beds across nine family shelters in King County as well as a day center for women experiencing homelessness.
Other critical service providers have also had to throw out their longtime playbooks for new plans to respond to a virus they had never heard of before this year.
“We’ve seen an increase in the number of people trying to get into shelter,” Hartman says. “I think there are a lot of scared people facing trauma in their lives, not only having lost their homes, but also fearful and afraid for the health and safety and wanting to know they are loved and wanted and invited in.”
The increase comes as fears grow about COVID-19, especially for people who are homeless, many of whom likely have underlying health conditions and are at high risk for getting the virus. In a time of “social distancing,” some shelters may have also reduced capacity in order to provide more space between guests. The weather also turned colder last week in Seattle.
Mary’s Place is doing everything it can to keep everybody healthy and safe, including checking 800 temperatures a day and working closely with its medical team, according to Hartman.
The goal remains to move people toward permanent housing. “That’s the way to stop the spread of the virus in shelters, to move everyone into their own house,” she says.
COVID-19 has forever changed Mary’s Place and others working with people who are homeless.
“It’s helped us recognize the quality of shelter we need to provide,” Hartman says. “If we can find more shelters with individual rooms that would create less trauma and increase the health and safety of our guests, that’s what we’re doing. We’re constantly looking at other sites.”
One big concern is that more people will need emergency shelters and affordable housing as businesses are forced to close their doors during the health crisis and workers are laid off.
“History has told us that those in poverty will struggle and will be the last to recover from any crisis,” Hartman says. “We know that. We know that this will be coming.”
That means Mary’s Place will have to do its very best to move its clients forward to make room for others that will be coming in.
“It will take all of us, not being reliant on the city or the county, but we know it’s our business community, our faith community, other nonprofits, our neighbors, our community members working together to help us solve this,” Hartman says. “No one is giving up.”
Meals Continue to Be Served
California is another area that’s been hard hit by the coronavirus so far. The state also has the largest homeless population estimated at about 151,000, and recent models show that as many 60,000 individuals who are homeless could be hit by the virus, with about 20% of them needing hospitalization.
Over the past 50 years, GLIDE’s free meal program has grown from a potluck in a church basement to serving roughly 2,100 meals a day to San Francisco’s neediest men and women.
Usually, people gather and eat together in the organization’s dining room, but these days everything is different. GLIDE leaders recently shut down its facilities for a weekend to perform a deep cleaning of their church sanctuary and other parts of their building in an effort to keep everyone safe from the COVID-19 virus.
GLIDE Church is the spiritual center of the Tenderloin neighborhood, and its vast array of programs, including a women’s center to assist survivors of domestic violence as well as harm reduction services that provide HIV and hepatitis C testing and treatment, are a lifeline to a large portion of the city’s homeless population.
“We’ve altered our entire program service delivery model,” says Kyriell Noon, chief impact officer at GLIDE.Committed to feeding its clients, GLIDE now serves meals in takeout containers outside its building in the Tenderloin.
“We’ve taken significant steps to ensure we can provide a certain level of service, basic needs, and essential services while also protecting the health our staff and clients,” Noon says.
GLIDE continues to offer other critical services, but, like the meal program, the format has had to change. For example, the Walk-In Center, which helps people with shelter reservations and other essential services, now operates from a triage desk in the lobby.
Some other group activities, including church services, have been suspended or are being offered online.
GLIDE usually has an army of volunteers, anywhere from 40 to 70 people, helping each day, but those numbers have dropped as people have had to stay home with their children as schools have shut down and residents have been ordered to shelter in place. GLIDE also decided to limit volunteers as well and has deployed staff from other areas to work on the most critical programs.
Much of the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government officials are aimed at people who have shelter. Staying inside and regularly washing your hands are tough to do when you are living at the corner of Ellis and Taylor streets in San Francisco.
“It’s hard to shelter in place when you don’t have shelter,” Noon says.
At this time, his biggest concern is sustainability.
“We ramped up and operating at this sort of heightened level of alert,” he says. “I’m concerned that it’s not sustainable for a long haul. A week or two, maybe a month, but if we’re talking about three, four, or six months, it’s going to be very, very challenging to maintain that heightened level.”
As the lockdown period continues in many states, many organizations, including nonprofits, are losing revenue, adds Noon. "Don't forget your local nonprofits with your philanthropy because we're going to need the help," he says. "All of this is unbudgeted, unforeseen costs that we're having to handle."