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While most Americans can self-quarantine against the coronavirus from the comforts of home, the area’s homeless population and domestic violence victims rely on shelters to keep them safe. Many guests and clients have complex needs, compromised immune systems, and chronic mental or physical health issues, making essential services even more critical.
Area shelters and drop-in centers are taking precautions to protect guests, clients and staff against COVID-19, enacting new policies and procedures for temperature checks, food preparation, special quarantine areas and, in some cases, temporarily moving residents to local hotels.
Mel Trotter Ministries and its workers and volunteers are exempt from the governor’s March 23 stay-home order, but the Grand Rapids shelter has instituted several new policies, including suspending mission tours and events for external visitors. Mel Trotter has called off volunteers, specifically in the cafeteria and as devotion leaders, until further notice.
The shelter has a significant need for medically trained volunteers and those trained in safety and security to support staff nurses and security, said Beth Fisher, Mel Trotter vice president of advancement.
Mel Trotter officials are seeking partnerships with local restaurants to supplement the food serve team.
Last week, Mel Trotter began mandatory temperature checks and screenings for other symptoms for anyone who enters the facility, including staff, volunteers and guests. The shelter has posted flyers notifying guests that similar screenings are possible at Dégagé Ministries, Family Promise of Grand Rapids, Guiding Light and Heartside Ministry, Fisher said, since many guests frequent multiple locations throughout the day.
Mel Trotter offers overnight housing to men, women and families — averaging 280 to 400 guests per night — and serves over 500 meals per day.
“We are putting together as many safety measures and precautions as we can,” Fisher said. “It’s all about keeping the guests safe inside the mission, but also individually we are trying to flatten the curve.”
Guests and staff members who have a fever or other symptoms are being evaluated by the medical team and will be removed from the general population, Fisher said. Shelter officials created special quarantine areas within the shelter for guests who show signs of illness or COVID-19 symptoms.
Over the weekend, Mel Trotter and Family Promise decided to move families residing at the shelter into local hotels to ensure their health and safety. These families are part of the Pathway Home program, a collaboration between Family Promise and Mel Trotter Ministries. Family Promise will continue advocacy and case management services for families.
Mel Trotter’s executive team is also in regular contact with local officials, health departments and other sister organizations to plan for and respond to a widespread outbreak within the shelter, Fisher said.
The shelter has to manage outbreaks of the flu, but COVID-19 is so new that extra precautions are necessary.
“We’re really well-equipped to do that because people do get sick in our mission,” Fisher said. “We have already addressed that really well with flu nurses on staff and cleaning services. We are already doing these things anyway, but now we are going over and above just as everyone else is.”
Mel Trotter staff members have tripled daily cleaning efforts and instituted a 9 p.m. curfew for guests, unless they are receiving external medical care. Other measures include almost all food being pre-prepped and pre-packaged and eliminating buffets and salad bars in the cafeteria. In some cases, staff members are serving guests at tables. The shelter is also utilizing lines to serve food but pre-portioning as much as possible, along with using paper and plastic bowls, plates, cups and utensils, Fisher said.
“A lot of our staff has stepped up to fill in those volunteer voids,” she said. “A lot of my team has been helping serve the guests during meal time…We are doing this work because we care so much about our guests.”
Fisher said the associated costs for increased staffing due to the reduction in volunteers, prepackaged foods, extra cleaning supplies, and disposable tableware is estimated around $100,000 for 30 days. Mel Trotter doesn’t have a fundraiser planned until June, but leaders predict a drop in giving due to cancelled meetings, the stock market decline and a general downturn in the economy.
“I think we would be remiss if we didn’t have concerns,” Fisher said. “This is affecting everybody. Hopefully, it doesn’t last that long … What I can tell you is that our donors are faithful.”
Other community and social services organizations are referring clients to Mel Trotter Ministries, including HQ Grand Rapids, a runaway and homeless youth drop-in center for ages 14-24.
Due to several staff members being sick and the governor’s recommendation to keep gatherings under 10 people, HQ executive director Shandra Steininger felt the best decision was to close on March 16.
HQ will remain closed for the next three weeks, but staff members are still answering the phone, making referrals and posting updates to Facebook and HQ’s website. There is a sign on the door referring teens to Mel Trotter, God’s Kitchen and Arbor Circle. God’s Kitchen has closed its dining area, but is offering to-go meals at the door.
“We’re trying to triage over the phone and connect youth as best as possible and support other organizations,” Steininger said.
The drop-in center logs 200 to 250 visits per week and offers a variety of free services, including laundry facilities, warm meals and showers. HQ also connects youth to community resources, including health care, case management, counseling, housing support, vital document recovery and job readiness skills.
Some teens are seeking help elsewhere, while others are adamant they will not.
“We are very low-barrier,” Steininger said. “We are not faith-based and we are very relational. Youth who have a hard time accessing traditional services or had a bad experience have reason not to want to go to other places. Many of our youth couch surf, so this current environment creates more vulnerability. They’re also sleeping outside and other places that are inhabitable to humans.”
HQ donated cleaning supplies, food and bus passes to other community organizations such as Mel Trotter, 3:11 Youth Housing, Covenant House, and The Bridge of Arbor Circle.
“We will continue to monitor this unprecedented situation, and we are eager to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so,” Steininger said. “We remain actively engaged in community conversations and are offering our resources (people and material) to help with this crisis.”
Small nonprofits like HQ operate on donations from the community, and it’s hard to know the full extent of the financial impacts, Steininger said. COVID-19 closures and event cancellations are straining the entire nonprofit sector. HQ was a recipient of a fundraising event in April that was canceled, and also does a big mailing for donations in April.
3:11 Youth Housing also had to cancel its annual gala and move it online as a virtual fundraising event.
“That is the kind of ripple effect this is going to cause,” Steininger said. “For those who have resources or who are already giving, please continue to do that. Many smaller nonprofits, we are completely dependent on our local philanthropy. We serve hundreds of youth a year.”
‘KEEPING ON KEEPING ON’
Well House, in Grand Rapids’ Heartside neighborhood, offers independent apartments and serves as a landlord to tenants who were formerly homeless or in emergency shelter. Well House manages 15 rental occupied homes, and some are communal living situations with shared common spaces. Tenants can isolate themselves in their rooms, but some have expressed concern about COVID-19, said Well House Executive Director John Glover.
“So far, with all of the unknowns, we are just keeping on keeping on,” he said.
Tenants are essentially private renters and can do what they want within their space. He recommends extra cleaning, especially in communal areas.
“We have distributed all of the basic kinds of health information that is accessible,” he said. “We are getting people who are walking in and saying they’ve been living in one or more of the shelters out there, and they would like to have their own private room. That’s not how we normally do intakes, but we did make an exception and took one person in that we could help.”
Glover said Well House rentals are always at full capacity with a waiting list. Operationally, Well House has adjusted some services after the governor’s most recent order for people to stay home.
“We can’t safely conduct intakes for walk-ins, so we’re suspending that portion of our work until further notice,” Glover said.
The organization will continue services for existing tenants, since some tenants have high needs and require a presence from staff to maintain a sense of security, he said. Well House also delivers food to some of those residents.
Staff members are checking in with tenants, and their designated community-support person, by phone and email. One staff member is available to respond to emergencies that requires someone to be physically available.
The organization has canceled two fundraisers, including a fashion show on March 13 and its annual Spring Jubilee on April 16.
“It’s hard to do anything, or any planning unless we understand what is happening,” Glover said. “If this crisis abates, we can start planning again…. Our tenant base is on a limited income and those who do work are going to get hit, so yeah, we expect there will be a hit, and we’ll just have to ride it out.”
HELPING DV VICTIMS
In Muskegon, Every Woman’s Place halted its walk-in crisis services after Monday’s order. People with immediate needs can request an appointment via phone, chat or text messaging.
Every Woman’s Place is taking extra precautions in its shelter, but no one exhibiting symptoms or who tests positive for COVID-19 will be denied services, said executive director Kim Dimmett.
Clients should inform EWP staff or any symptoms and request a mask upon arrival, and the shelter has created a quarantine area on the third floor for anyone who gets sick.
“We want to make sure people don’t feel any more isolated,” Dimmett said. “It’s not a reason to stay in a bad situation.”
Every Woman’s Place serves domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking victims through an emergency shelter, counseling and other advocacy services. One of the biggest impacts has been helping victims get personal protective orders since the Muskegon County Court Building is closed.
Now, petitions must be mailed in, but the center’s legal advocate, who normally works in the county building, can still help facilitate the process. Dimmett and other staff members are in contact with the prosecutor and other officials.
“We will work around it,” she said. “We will get one. It’s just going to take a little more doing.”
Every Woman’s Place also staffs a 24-hour phone crisis line, has a secure and confidential online chat option through its website, and recently added an encrypted text by phone option for survivors who cannot access the internet. The agency implemented the chat and text tools in response to COVID-19, which has made in-person consultations a challenge, but they will remain an important communication tool going forward, Dimmett said.
At the shelter, employees have increased cleaning efforts — down to washing door knobs — and instructed residents to wash their hands and practice social distancing as much as possible.
“I’d really like to emphasize we’re open, and we do have these alternative methods of communication,” she said. “We’re trying to do the best we can to make sure they feel safe and comfortable and reassuring them.”
The organization posts regular COVID-19 updates on everywomansplace.org. The Every Woman’s Place satellite locations in Whitehall/Montague and Muskegon Heights are closed until further notice.
EWP has suspended public donations of clothing and household goods until the crisis lifts because Lakeside Baptist Church, which processes the donations, is also closed. The local WIC office also has closed its doors, adding additional strain to social services and stress to new mothers.
Dimmett anticipates Every Woman’s Place’s main annual fundraiser, Cheers and Chocolate, will be canceled. It’s scheduled for April 18 and held in conjunction with students at the Culinary Institute of Michigan. However, she said state or federal emergency funding may become available to help offset financial losses.
“That obviously leaves a gap in our funding, but I believe we will be made whole,” she said. “We do good work. We will rebound, and we’ll be better.”
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