Homeless housing and services altered because of COVID-19

A man sits near a sidewalk Tuesday, April 14, in Salt Lake City. The city has confirmed a handful of COVID-19 cases in the homeless community, where preventive steps such as hand-washing and social distancing are more difficult. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Homeless shelters and services in Utah are still open with some operational changes in light of COVID-19.

On April 13, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson announced that those who are at high risk for contracting COVID-19 within the homeless community would be transferred to a hotel. Utah policymakers decided to close a winter overflow shelter in Sugar House on Wednesday, April 15, but this is the typical timeline for winter shelters to close.

“The county is leasing an entire hotel to provide ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ housing for roughly 130 asymptomatic clients,” says the statement from the mayor’s office. “These individuals are either over the age of 60 or have underlying health issues.”

The statement did not name the hotel but did say that the lease agreement was for two weeks. An option to extend is written into the agreement.

Other homeless service providers are also working to deal with the social distancing guidelines necessary to protect clients.

In 2019, the Center for Disease Control published some guidelines for homeless service providers. It outlined what homeless shelters could do to prepare before, during and after a possible COVID-19 outbreak. Since the outbreak has officially spread to the United States, some updates have been added.

A person covered in a blanket walks along a street in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, said they’re doing their best to follow the CDC’s Interim Guidance for Homeless Service Providers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease.

“We have separated seating to increase distance between people, removed chairs from the dining rooms and staggered and extended mealtimes as needed,” Flynn said.

She said they are separating individuals into private studio apartments and putting families in motels to comply with social distancing guidelines. “Though much of our sleeping areas are dorms with bunk beds, we are doing as much as possible to increase distance by alternating head-to-toe and toe-to-toe sleeping,” she said. The shelter is not allowing visitors.

Officials at The Road Home have also begun to closely examine everyone living in the Men’s Resource Center in South Salt Lake and the Midvale Family Resource Center for symptoms of COVID-19 and to provide tests when needed.

According to Chloe Morroni, the communications director for Salt Lake County, this was accomplished with the combined efforts of partners including the Men’s Resource Center and The Road Home, along with medical team support from the state of Utah, Salt Lake County Health Department and Medical Reserve Corps, Fourth Street Clinic, the University of Utah Wellness Bus and Intermountain Healthcare.

After one client at the Men’s Resource Center tested positive for COVID-19, Director of Development Kat Khan said they are not accepting new clients. Since then, The Men’s Resource Center found that a total of 94 of its clients have tested positive as of Friday, April 17. Salt Lake County Programs and Partnerships Director Katherine Fife said that the center “essentially became its own quarantine.”

Khan has also seen changes in The Midvale Family Center.

“For The Midvale Family Center, our numbers have been much lower than average for the last month,” Kahn said.

Sue Ativalu, the division director of adult homeless services for Volunteers of America Utah, oversees the Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center, the Center for Women and Children in Murray, the Homeless Outreach team and other programs for those in need. Her women’s resource center actually saw an increase in women coming in. She said it’s hard to say if an increase of clientele is due to the pandemic.

“It’s hard to tell because we’re just on the tail end of winter and that’s usually when we see numbers increase anyways,” Ativalu said.

The coronavirus task force headed by Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is ensuring that the homeless community receives tests for all the Utah shelters.

Pamela Atkinson, a community advocate with the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, said, “They have plans to do further testing across Utah.”

Ativalu says that the general sentiment of her homeless clients mirrors the public’s; people are concerned and worried about their safety. “There’s a lot of questions,” she said. “We have done multiple community meetings and town halls.” These informational meetings help keep their clients up to date on current news and changes in operation.

Atkinson said she’s been fielding calls from homeless clients. “They repeatedly say how incredible the staff had been in protecting them,” Atkinson said.

To contain the potential spread of disease, Catholic Community Services canceled all non-basic needs services. According to its website, “All basic needs services such as food, water and shelter will continue. Our Saint Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, Weigand Homeless Resource Center, Gail Miller Resource Center and Joyce Hansen Hall Food Pantry will all remain open and operational with minimum staff and limited services.”

South Valley Services is also semi-operational, according to its website, which says it has “implemented some temporary agency changes that will enable staff to continue to provide the services of shelter, therapy and case management to care for our existing and new clients.” While South Valley Services is not offering tours, its “shelter and hotline are open and taking calls and clients.”

Similarly, the Food and Care Coalition in Provo is still accepting applications for transitional housing but only over the phone. It is also providing shower and laundry services by appointment. Meals provided for those in need are made in to-go containers. The coalition made it clear on its website that “congregating and loitering on coalition or neighboring properties is prohibited.”

Provo’s Community Action Services and Food Bank has a team ready to help those in need of emergency housing assistance. Its website assures that “caseworkers are available to meet with clients over the phone or via email to walk them through options and eligibility.”

When it comes to community awareness, Ativalu says the general public would better understand if they were proximate to the situation. “If they are not really touched by that population, it’s tough to understand what the challenges might be,” she said. For example, everyone is dealing with the closing of public buildings, but families experiencing homelessness, who regularly visited places like public libraries, are having to cope with having nowhere else to go.

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