In the final days of 2020 COVID-19 spread rapidly through the House of Mercy, infecting 24 of the homeless shelter’s guests as well as six staff members and four volunteers. The facility temporarily closed its doors Dec. 29 while its leaders formulated a plan for a safe reopening.
“It has been difficult for us to close our doors to those suffering from cold and homelessness. Please pray for House of Mercy during this painful time,” Mercy Sister Grace Miller, founder and executive director, said in a statement released Jan. 14, a day before the facility began its phased reopening.
The first phase of the plan called for increased staff training and safety protocols related to testing, cleaning, screening, contact tracing, personal protective equipment, and vaccination plans for staff and shelter guests. The 82-bed shelter planned to operate at 10 percent capacity during its first two weeks after reopening, according to the Jan. 14 press release.
While the facility was closed, its guests were temporarily relocated to local hotels. Such relocation is one of many strategies local organizations have utilized as they adapt their services to reflect the challenges that come with serving the homeless during a global pandemic.
Last spring the pandemic worsened already-precarious housing situations for many people, according to Suzi Fritz, emergency services director for Catholic Charities of Chemung and Schuyler. When schools and businesses closed and people began working and studying from home, individuals who previously had been sleeping on the couches of friends or relatives were forced to find new places to stay, Fritz said. At the same time, Catholic Charities of Chemung and Schuyler’s Second Place East, a 15-bed homeless shelter in Elmira, had to cut its capacity by 50 percent in order to adhere to social-distancing requirements, she said. Those who cannot be accommodated in the shelter are put up in a local motel, Fritz added.
Before the pandemic, guests at Second Place East did not spend much time at the house during the day, instead keeping appointments with mental-health professionals, substance-abuse treatment programs or social-service providers, or seeking out places with free Wi-Fi in order to search for jobs online, Fritz said. Now most of those places are either closed or have their own capacity restrictions, and most appointments are carried out over the phone or online, she said. Not only does this make social distancing inside the shelter more challenging, but it also can take a toll on guests’ mental health, she added.
“All of those outlets that they had aren’t available any longer,” Fritz remarked. “It puts a lot of strain on the individual.”
In the Finger Lakes region, both Family Promise of Ontario County as well as Family Promise of Wayne County have rented apartments to house formerly homeless families and individuals. Before the pandemic, both organizations had relied upon local religious congregations to take turns sheltering homeless people inside their facilities for a week at a time. During a given congregation’s week to host, volunteers from that faith community would provide dinner for their guests, and each morning those guests would go to the organization’s day center to shower, look for work or receive case-management services.
When the pandemic closed houses of worship as well as Family Promise’s day centers, both organizations took a beat to consider their options before renting apartments for the families in their programs. The organizations provide case-management services to the families right in their apartments, and volunteers from Family Promise’s partner congregations remain “the backbone of the program” as they take turns preparing meals or buying groceries for the families, according to Graig Roberts, director of Family Promise of Wayne County.
Several families have transitioned through Family Promise of Ontario County’s program and been able to move from the organization’s three apartments into their own apartments, according to Brenda Spratt, director of the Ontario County program. This proves that the new model is successful, although this success carries a hefty price tag, she said.
“It definitely hurt us financially, because having people stay in the congregations was free,” Spratt said. “Now we’re paying $3,000 a month in rent. That’s been a challenge,” Spratt said.
Both Family Promise organizations have relied upon grant funding from various sources to meet their costs thus far, Spratt and Roberts noted.
Catholic Family Center, which operates three emergency shelters in Rochester, also has turned to hotels to house some of its guests, according to Lisa Lewis, the agency’s vice president of housing and stabilization services. Providing shelter for the homeless is much more complicated and challenging now than it was before the pandemic, but there has been a silver lining in the form of increased cooperation among local service providers, Lewis said.
“We were able to, as a community, come together and start a shelter task force group. … We were able to create a manual, a guidance for all shelters to use, looking at how do we care for quarantined individuals, what are the safety protocols coming from all the regulatory bodies, and how do we implement them?” Lewis said. “Our community has pulled together to be able to address serving the homeless during COVID.“