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B-N Homeless Shelters Face More Costs To Stay COVID-Free

Staff serving meals at Salvation Army
Daniel Robinson/Salvation Army
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The Salvation Army Safe Harbor shelter in Bloomington has reduced the number of available beds during the pandemic.

Bloomington-Normal homeless shelters have kept the coronavirus out of their living quarters, but the safety precautions come at a cost at a time of year when demand for services is greater than ever.

Matt Burgess is chief operating officer at Home Sweet Home Ministries in Bloomington. Some days he's a desk clerk, too.

Matt Burgess
Credit Home Sweet Home Ministries
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Home Sweet Home Ministries COO Matt Burgess said staff has had to take on additional tasks since volunteers are not allowed inside during the pandemic.

“I ordinarily say I am not qualified to work at the front desk, but I have been helping that team the best that I can at different times," Burgess quipped.

The ministry banned all volunteers at the start of the pandemic to limit the potential for COVID-19 infections. So, all staff members at the homeless shelter and soup kitchen have taken on extra tasks.

That's one of several steps the shelter has taken to keep people safe. Home Sweet Home only serves meals on site to people who are staying there. Others can get a hot meal to go.

Staff members get tested for COVID every few weeks. Residents get tested if they show symptoms. Masks are mandatory.

The shelter also removed more than a dozen beds to maintain social distancing. With fewer beds, the shelter is now at capacity.

Burgess said the shelter will still do what it can to help the most vulnerable people needing a place to stay.

So far, those steps have worked. Home Sweet Home has had no residents and only one staff person test positive for the coronavirus since March.

JoAnna Callahan
Credit Salvation Army
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Salvation Army social services director JoAnna Callahan said its homeless shelter has some available beds even though several have been removed.

At the Salvation Army Safe Harbor shelter in Bloomington, a few staffers have had to isolate after a possible exposure. But Scial Services Director JoAnna Callahan said the shelter also has been COVID-free.

“I am honestly surprised, but on the other hand just incredibly thankful,” Callahan said. “I know the staff we have here is absolutely excellent and we do everything we can to keep ourselves and the others safe.”

The shelter has cut the number of available beds nearly in half.

Both Home Sweet Home and the Salvation Army check staff and guests regularly for COVID symptoms. They also have to clean more than ever before. Callahan said supplies are expensive and often scarce.

“It’s not exactly easy to go to the store and buy gloves anymore because the shelves are empty, even small things like toilet paper and cleaning and disinfecting wipes,” she said.

Higher costs 

The extra steps the shelters have taken cost money at a time when social service agencies are stretched thin and the need often is the greatest. Both agencies said donors have stepped up to fill the void. Callahan said church groups that typically give their time by serving meals have donated supplies instead.

Burgess said Home Sweet Home secured grants and money through the federal Paycheck Protection Program to get by.

“Those have helped to close the gap on what our normal expenses would have been compared to, that higher level of expenses this year,” he said.

The funding can help sustain non-profits during a time when conventional fundraising efforts are much harder to do because of the pandemic.
 

Salvation Army Safe Harbor entrance
Credit Daniel Robinson
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The Salvation Army Safe Harbor shelter has been averaging about 40 guests per night in recent weeks.

The Salvation Army relies on red kettles set up outside stores to bring in money during the holidays. It's annual Make A Difference campaign hopes to raise $500,000 to pay for its services year round. But fewer people are going to those stores during the pandemic. More shop online instead. Callahan noted it's been trending that way for years.

“I think COVID aside, online shopping has definitely been a hit for us, truthfully, but we’ve been trying to be creative,” he said.

The Salvation Army encourages groups to raise money online among friends and co-workers. It also will rely more on mail-in donations.

Burgess said Home Sweet Home’s big annual fundraiser, a homeless simulation where donors spend a night-in-a-car, will look different this year because of the pandemic, but he said donors have found other ways to help.

“Many of our donors who have been longtime donors have stepped up knowing that there is increased need,” he said.

While unemployment remains high largely because of the pandemic, demand for services is down in some ways. Home Sweet Home distributes several thousand of turkeys and holiday food boxes every Thanksgiving. Burgess said the agency didn't need nearly as many this year.

“Despite all the news about people traveling around the country, I think the large gatherings were down, so maybe not as many people wanted that big turkey,” Burgess said.

Home Sweet Home Ministries
Credit Facebook/Home Sweet Home Ministries
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Home Sweet Home Ministries is delivering gift cards to clients this holiday season instead of delivering meals to reduce the risk of COVID spread.

Home Sweet Home also suspended holiday meal deliveries this year to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. Instead, the ministry mailed grocery store gift cards to clients, and volunteers will call them on Christmas to wish them well.

Also, the Salvation Army recently opened its warming center where people can sleep on cots in an overflow area to get in from the cold. Callahan said aside from that surge when cold weather hit, demand for beds has been lower than expected.

“We found that the demand for shelter hasn’t been as high as anticipated,” she said. “Part of that has to do with different programs and (the) governor’s order to prevent eviction and things along those lines.”

Gov. JB Pritzker's eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of the year.

The Salvation Army also is seeking donated coats, especially for children under age 5 and adults. They can be dropped off at the Salvation Army office at 611 W. Washington St. weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.