Homeless shelters switch focus to safety protocols

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Residents of the Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles stand in line for food. The downtown missions have switched their focus to protect their residents during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy photo)

By Stephen Wyer, Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — Homeless shelters near Skid Row are implementing new safety protocols to protect their residents during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the pandemic forced a statewide stay at home order in early March, shelters have struggled to balance the need to keep their facilities safe and socially distanced, while also accommodating a rising need for their services.

The number of Los Angeles County residents experiencing homelessness rose to 66,436 as of June 2020, compared to 58,936 in 2019 — a 12.7% increase, according to numbers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

While more homeless individuals than ever are seeking assistance from shelters, shelters themselves have had to reduce capacities significantly in order to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus, which is highly transmittable in indoor spaces.

Andrew Bales, the CEO of Union Rescue Mission, said that his shelter had to reduce the number of available beds at the downtown facility from 1,000 to 600 per night, in order to allow for effective distancing. Capacity reductions have strained his and other shelters’ abilities to take in new residents, Bales added.

“We currently have more people on the streets than ever before in Los Angeles,” Bales said. “The hardest thing is what happens on the day when we’re out of space because of social distancing — how creative are we going to have to get?”

Shelters by nature tend to be congested, crowded facilities where social distancing is much more difficult, said Benjamin Henwood, an expert in health and housing services at USC.

“Shelters are not well designed for our current situation, nor are they designed well even outside of this,” Henwood said. “If you think of a human-centered design you wouldn’t create the kind of shelters we see that lack that kind of privacy and personal space. It’s not a trauma-informed design and now you’re seeing some of the public health consequences of the way they’ve been set up.”

To accommodate the need to reduce capacities while not turning people away, shelters have turned to interim housing programs, such as Project Roomkey, a state- and county-led initiative procuring hotel rooms for the homeless. Project Roomkey has provided temporary housing for around 5,000 homeless people in L.A. County, Henwood said.

Shelters have been able to refer people to the program when they reach their capacities, which has helped keep shelters distanced and safe, Bales said. Nonetheless, the sheer demand for shelter services is still outpacing the city’s ability to supply interim housing, he added.

“Even with Project Roomkey assisting 5,000 people, at the end of this year we will still have more people on our streets than we did pre-pandemic,” Bales said.

In addition to capacity reductions, Skid Row shelters have implemented safety standards within their facilities, such as mandating face masks, temperature checking, deep-cleaning of buildings and frequent coronavirus testing.

At the Midnight Mission, one of Skid Row’s oldest and largest shelters, all residents and staff are tested weekly, said Georgia Berkovich, the shelter’s director of public affairs. Any resident or staff member who tests positive is quarantined and is not allowed to reenter the shelter until they show two negative tests. Berkovich said that as a result of stringent safety guidelines the Midnight Mission has only had two staff members and two residents test positive for the virus since March.

The Los Angeles Mission requires residents and staff to wear face coverings, have their temperatures taken before entering the premises, and wash their hands regularly, said Herb Smith, the shelter’s president and CEO. Congregate meals in the shelter’s dining halls have been replaced by a takeout service to promote distancing, and the shelter has had to reduce capacity by 50% for its long-term housing program, he added.

“Safety first; that has always been one of our mottos,” Smith said. Unfortunately it has caused us to decrease our capacity. That’s the biggest challenge and heartbreak for us is that we aren’t able to serve some people who come to us.”

Frequent testing, tents for quarantined residents, regular sanitization, as well as providing face masks and personal protective equipment for staff have all greatly added to the financial costs faced by shelters. The Union Rescue Mission has spent more than $600,000 so far to maintain safety protocols at their facilities, according to Bales.

Resources also have been strained for shelters by the loss of volunteers. Due to the need to reduce facility capacity and preserve safety for staff and residents, many shelters have had to cut down or eliminate their volunteer programs altogether, forcing staff to take on an increased workload.

“We’ve shut down our volunteer activities essentially since March,” Smith said. “For their safety and ours we said please don’t come

“The volunteers are critical to us. We have over 4,000 volunteers a year and they provide a lot of extra help. Without them, we’re struggling, we’re having to add staff and temporary staff to make up for the volunteers — it’s a total pivot,” Smith said.

Berkovich said that the Midnight Mission has had to cancel its largest fundraising events this year, due to safety concerns and a lack of volunteers who typically run the events. She added that while the Midnight Mission is not allowing on-site volunteers, the shelter’s supporters have stepped up in other ways.

“During usual times we get about 18,000 volunteers a year,” Berkovich said. “Those people who volunteer still want to help — they’ve been making masks, making takeout meals, and holding fundraisers for us.”

The Union Rescue Mission typically receives around 30,000 volunteers a year, and has had to adjust as staff have taken on increased responsibilities since March, Bales noted. However, he added that donations to the shelter have actually increased since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We’ve kept all of our staff, we haven’t laid anybody off, whether they’re working from home or not,” Bales said. “Our revenue has been unaffected. In fact, people are stepping up better than ever to help us through the COVID-19 battle.”