Shelter from the storm: Providing care, comfort for homeless impacted by the coronavirus

Andy Downing
The inside of an emergency shelter at 40 West. The need for an isolated shelter for those experiencing homelessness is prevalent due to congregant settings at shelters.

There’s a level of secrecy around Shelter for Isolation and Quarantine (SIQ) facilities, which have been established by Community Partner Board in partnership with the YMCA of Central Ohio to provide assistance to people experiencing homelessness who have tested positive for COVID-19, have exhibited symptoms or have come in contact with someone who has the virus. Volunteers are required to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and the exact location of the North Side hotel used as a shelter has not been released, which Mayor Andrew Ginter attributed to a need to safeguard privacy.

"I think it's akin to why we protect the address of a domestic violence shelter," said Beth Lonn, executive director for community housing for the YMCA of Central Ohio. "The privacy and the anonymity of the patients is protected by not disclosing the location. Also, having an undisclosed location ensures that only those who need to receive the services are admitted."

The shelters are a necessary part of the response to the coronavirus, offering care to a population that is of particular risk for contracting and spreading the illness. Homeless shelters are not designed to maximize beds, a setup that doesn’t allow for recommended social distancing, and people experiencing homelessness don’t always have access to personal care facilities, said Kourtney Clark, Program Director - SIQ Site for YMCA of Central Ohio, via email. Clark noted that many individuals within this group have compromised immune systems, as well, which can put them at particular risk with COVID-19.

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Inside the SIQ facility, which Clark described as a hybrid hotel, shelter and medical setting, residents typically spend their days watching TV, utilizing the wi-fi and chatting with the volunteer staff, which is made up of anywhere from three to seven people per day, most of whom volunteer in a medical capacity.

At its peak, the site, which is designed to house a couple hundred residents, has hosted 39 individuals (anyone requiring more intensive care is transported to the nearest hospital). The rooms are funded in part by a $1 million emergency fund set up by the city in March, though the Dispatch recently reported that more money is needed to extend housing beyond July. Clark also said that SIQ, like many health care providers, is beginning to experience a personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage, which has required making “smart, safe” decisions to extend existing stock.

For the newly diagnosed, Clark said the prevailing emotions have generally been confusion and fear, owing to the unknowns about the virus and heightened by media coverage that has focused more heavily on those who have died from COVID-19 than on the recoveries.

At the same time, Clark’s experiences at the SIQ site have served as a reminder that there are repercussions to the virus that go far beyond an individual’s health, and which also speak to the need to safeguard anonymity.

“We just hosted our first family at the SIQ, and do you know what [the mother’s] biggest worry was besides making sure her kids were healthy? She was worried that because she was suspected of having the virus that she wouldn’t be allowed back in shelter,” Clark said. “This was powerful, especially if you need to return to a congregate living facility. It made me think [about how] after this is all over, people’s interactions with one another and those who had the virus could be altered.”

The pandemic has also revealed deep cracks in everything from the health care system, with record unemployment leading to millions being booted off of employer-provided coverage, to an economic system shaped by a growing inequality highlighted in photos like these that emerged from Las Vegas, which depict homeless individuals sleeping in taped-off squares in a parking lot that falls within the shadow of empty luxury hotels.

“The virus effects have shown how fragile the system has become,” said Clark, noting that the impact of the coronavirus has been disproportionately felt by lower-income populations and communities of color. “It has shown that our value system is indeed broken. Hotels, houses [and] apartments lie empty while people are without the basic needs. Inequality has definitely been exposed. But is it enough [to bring change]?”