Friday, February 23, 2024 Feb 23, 2024
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Checking In With Dallas’ Homeless Shelters As Coronavirus Looms

An outbreak of COVID-19 at the Dallas Life shelter just highlighted how tricky protecting this population is. Here's what other shelters in town are doing.
By Trace Miller |
On a recent afternoon, a few men took drags from their cigarettes on the front lawn of the Salvation Army Carr P. Collins Social Service Center. It’s not a normal scene. Generally, the emergency shelter’s clients take off during the day and return after sundown. The spread of the coronavirus changed its operations nearly overnight.

Masks are mandatory when inside. The 600 capacity is down to 450. A paper sign is taped to a grey water fountain: “PLEASE DO NOT USE.” Guests have their temperature taken upon entering the building. At mealtime, clients line up using blue tape on the floor to gauge a safe physical distance from one another. There are white, tarpaulin tents occupying the volleyball court; inside, chairs are spaced six feet apart. The Salvation Army has even retrofitted a van to ensure separation in case a client needs transportation—possibly even medical care.

These are just a few of the stringent new policies in Dallas’ homeless shelters. The most vulnerable among us receive housing and social services in one of the most vulnerable settings imaginable: the group shelter, often containing large rooms, airy outdoor plazas, and dormitory-style housing. Just last week, 41 individuals at the Dallas Life shelter in the Cedars tested positive for the coronavirus. Another 150 were likely exposed and are quarantining.

In the face of this threat, shelters have instituted forceful measures to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. Dallas Life remains the only shelter that’s recorded positive cases. But the threat remains. The abstract of an unpublished paper by professors at the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, and the University of California Los Angeles makes clear the grim vulnerability of the homeless population. The paper projects, “that homeless individuals infected by COVID-19 would be twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die than the general population.”

Shelters shoulder that responsibility. They can’t close.

“We have four wings in this building,” says Blake Fetterman, the executive director of Carr P. Collins Social Service Center. “Three of the wings are all semiprivate rooms. So, we’re pretty lucky in that regard because there is kind of a natural containment. That if one person does happen to get sick, it would affect their roommate, not a shelter full of 100 people or more. But our wing over on the south end, that’s where we have our open-bay dorms, and those are the spaces where we had to take out beds in order to allow for increased social distancing.”

The Salvation Army ordered 50,000 masks to supply its guests. Becoming a 24-hour shelter has increased daytime attendance by about 50 percent. It’s the largest social services provider in the Salvation Army’s North Texas offerings. It provides job readiness training, addiction recovery, and financial education. And now, the emergency shelter is open the entire day, not just nights. Staff has employed the day rooms, group rooms, gym, and cafeteria—when it’s not mealtime—as overflow space.

“Very early on,” Fetterman says, “what we started with was: We need to get an extra housekeeper. Because we need to be doing a lot more disinfecting than we would if we weren’t in a pandemic situation. We already had established cleaning protocols—you have to in this type of environment. But we had to really step it up quite a bit. So, we stocked up on our disinfectant. We were lucky we were able to get Clorox wipes—we did it right before everyone started mass purchasing. And we have the Lysol sprays.”

Austin Street Center and Union Gospel Mission shelters follow similar procedures to the Salvation Army. They had to switch gears quickly. On March 2, Austin Street CEO Daniel Roby began communicating with his staff about federal recommendations regarding the coronavirus. On March 13, Austin Street Center began its continuous cleaning procedures, installed hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the building, increased their screening protocols, and spaced beds apart. HVAC systems were disinfected.

By March 18, guests were sheltering in place; if you left, you were told you may not be able to return. On April 2, temperature tests became routine. Masks were distributed April 7. Group activities were minimized. Visitors and volunteers were banned. Outdoor tents were set up to accommodate the new daytime guests.

The Bridge, in downtown, was already a full-fledged 24-hour shelter before it began to shelter guests in place. About 225 sleep there each night, down from 300. Total guests per day dropped from 900 to 350. Some guests sleep at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center’s pop-up shelter and spend the days at the Bridge.

“The walk from the convention center is short, but the potential to engage others is large, thus our establishing expectations for how guests and employees are engaged at entry points to the campus,” says Dr. David Woody, the president and CEO of the Bridge.

Social services are still being provided, albeit not in person. Legal Aid offers its services via teleconference. Metrocare is using telemedicine. The best the Bridge can do is take temperatures of everyone entering campus, give them hand sanitizer, and keep an eagle eye out for symptoms of COVID-19.

Austin Street Center, which has adjusted but not stopped intake procedures, currently only accepts guests from the convention center temporary shelter because they’ve been screened and symptom-monitored for at least one night.

But what happens if a guest presents symptoms?

At the Carr P. Collins Social Service Center, in partnership with the city of Dallas, anyone who presents symptoms of COVID-19 is instantly isolated, tested across the street at Parkland, and quarantined in a hotel for 14 days. Parkland has set up a special hotline just for homeless service providers. If a guest presents symptoms, the shelter calls that line, which routes through Parkland’s HOMES (Homeless Outreach Medical Services) department. They do a virtual screening, then schedule a test.

“We have a fleet of vans,” Fetterman says. “We rigged one of our vans to be able to safely transport. So, we removed all the seats except for the backseat, so that there’s a physical barrier between the staff member driving.”

Everyone involved in this process dons the CDC-recommended personal protective equipment. Most shelters have created their own “coronamobiles,” if you will, as a preventive measure in case the worst happens.

The Bridge has an EMT on campus 12 hours a day who can determine if an individual is indeed presenting symptoms and should be tested at Parkland. They have the ability to isolate and quarantine individuals in hotel rooms, with the city’s help. (According to a recent briefing, the city is spending nearly $2 million on housing the homeless at hotels, which it expects to be repaid by the federal government.)

Union Gospel Mission takes temperatures in the morning when guests wake up and in the evening at dinner. Any individual who goes in or out is also automatically tested, just like the other shelters. (All four homeless shelters follow that last procedure.) If someone is running a fever, Union Gospel Mission either calls an EMS or takes the guest in their coronamobile to American Airlines Center for testing.

Bruce Butler, the CEO of Union Gospel Mission, describes the catch-22 of protecting and empowering the homeless population: their goal is to see the homeless employed, and, eventually, housed. But because of shelter in place, they can’t allow guests to come and go—even for work.

“It really hurt me to tell someone that they can’t go to work,” Butler says. “We had to make the tough decision to let people know if you have external jobs, we were going to partner with the city to try to get you rapidly rehoused.”

Carr P. Collins allows residents to leave if they’re working at an essential business, but their temperature is taken before and after. Fundamental shifts to an operation aren’t free. Homeless shelters have had to hire more cleaning staff and more security. They have had to purchase more cleaning supplies and more PPE—none of which is cheap. For example, Union Gospel Mission’s expenses have increased by about $24,000 per week. To make matters worse, their fundraising events are canceled or postponed for obvious reasons.

But they continue to serve, doing all they can to protect the vulnerable people who briefly call their operations home.

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