The homeless population in Bloomington-Normal is at increased risk of COVID-19 sickness, according to service providers.
“I would definitely say the people that we serve are more vulnerable. We do have some folks here who do have some severe health issues. Also, some have everyday life skills that lead them to make choices that are not healthy for them which would probably make them more vulnerable. It’s a mix,” said Bloomington-Normal Salvation Army Safe Harbor shelter director Joanna Callahan.
Sleeping arrangements are in common areas, which makes the recommended social distancing difficult to achieve.
“That is probably our largest concern is if it gets into one of the shelters. Their numbers are high. It could go so quickly,” said Karen Zangerle of Providing Access To Help (PATH).
“We are trying to keep people separated as much as possible. We’re trying to keep them out of the common area. We’re trying to, as much as we can, space people out. We try to put a bed in between each person,” said Home Sweet Home Ministries CEO Mary Ann Pullin.
Even before the pandemic, shelter protocols called for thorough cleaning of public spaces and laundering of bedding. They said they would be extra diligent now.
Planning continues as pandemic conditions change.
“We basically just have dialogues of, what if? What if? What if, all the time,” said Joanna Callahan.
Pullin said HSH is checking temperatures every day for staff and clients. There are more precautions in the dining room, said Pullin, such as not using the salad bar and other measures to minimize people touching things. An area to sit and watch TV has been closed at the HSHM shelter. In the past, HSHM has allowed overnight passes, but not now, said Pullin. Home Sweet Home has eliminated in person case management meetings including screenings and intake sessions, now happening by phone.
Pullin said they have an isolation plan if one or two cases emerge. Home Sweet Home has two isolation rooms on the men’s floor and two on the women’s floor and meals would be brought to ill people.
Home Sweet Home has also barred volunteers and those are a substantial part of the workforce. Pullin said they are coping with other staff.
“You might find me making sandwiches,” said Pullin.
Home Sweet Home Ministries has also repurposed some of the shuttered Mission Mart staff to the shelter kitchen.
At the Salvation Army Safe Harbor Shelter Director Joanna Callahan said they are trying to work through glassed windows instead of having private conversations with clients. They have changed from cafeteria-style food service to pre-packaged to-go meals to lessen contact between the staff and homeless.
And Safe Harbor is also checking temperatures with a no-contact thermometer held several inches away from a face.
“We ended up searching high and low to get one. It was at CVS. It was the absolute last one. We purchased this ahead of time,” said Callahan.
Callahan said they have limited stocks of gloves and donated to go boxes for meals.
Still, communal sleeping arrangements present a challenge. Callahan said they are leaving an empty bed in between clients.
And service providers said they fear nothing will be enough to prevent the virus from entering the shelters.
“I think that it’s inevitable. But also, there are things we can do to protect. We are prepared to dwindle down our staff and our programming and operate more as an essential service to the community rather than a social service with case management. This would be, here’s some food. Here’s a place to sleep. Take a shower, those basic services,” said Callahan.
She said they would work with other service providers to remove sick clients to a place they could be quarantined.
There are no individual rooms at the Salvation Army Safe Harbor Shelter. There are only two such rooms in which to quarantine a sick person at the Home Sweet Home Ministries shelter, according to Pullin.
Even before the pandemic, PATH contracted with the Red Roof Inn and the Quality Inn for hotel rooms for temporary placement of transient homeless people who have temporarily come into the community. Safe Harbor and Home Sweet Home could look to PATH to place a homeless person with COVID-19 who is not sick enough for a hospital bed. Maybe.
“I don’t know that I would have enough hotel rooms. We would certainly have to double up, or triple up,” said Zangerle.
PATH and the other homeless service providers are also trying to problem solve what they would do if a street person contracted the coronavirus.
“We have one woman who is very mentally ill and she will not go into a shelter. She would not go into a hotel. And she just wanders the streets,” said Zangerle.
Homeless service providers in California, which has the nation’s highest number of homeless, estimated the same proportion of that population will catch the virus as the general population, about 40%.
That level of COVID-19 infection could make it tough for Bloomington-Normal shelters to continue service.
“There are still people needing shelter and help in this time. We are working very hard to stay open,” said Callahan.
The two Bloomington-Normal shelters care for close to 100 people per night at this time of year.
The health crisis comes at a time many agencies are strapped for cash to continue operations. But, Callahan said there is some hope for state action.
“For a variety of programs there are new funds being put out to stimulate social service organizations that are working really hard to continue to provide services to this epidemic,” said Callahan.