Coronavirus: Homeless with COVID-19 to need housing long-term

Mark Ferenchik
The Ohio National Guard formed an assembly line to serve meals to the homeless outside the YMCA in Downtown Columbus on March 24.

The Community Shelter Board is preparing to house homeless people who test positive for or are exposed to coronavirus for up to another two years, along with those who need shelters where they can practice social distancing.

One idea officials are considering: Buy a hotel with kitchenettes to house those with COVID-19 or who have been exposed, said Michelle Heritage, the board’s executive director.

After the pandemic ends, the hotel could be converted into affordable housing.

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“You’d be surprised how many hotels are up for sale,” Heritage said. “It could be a possible solution, so we’re exploring that right now.”

The Community Shelter Board had added beds at five new shelters to provide social distancing and isolation for the population: two men’s shelters, one women’s shelter and two hotels, one on the North Side near the Interstate 71/Route 161 interchange and another, a Red Roof Inn, in Westerville.

The hotels were reserved for homeless people who were diagnosed with coronavirus or had been exposed to it.

The owner of the Red Roof Inn wants to return it to hotel use. Heritage said the North Side hotel on Mediterranean Avenue can house up to 91.

The shelter board has moved men from the Sullivant Recreation Center on the West Side to the Downtown YMCA at 40 W. Long St., where there are 190 beds. Another 60 spots for social distancing for women have been available at the Hilltop YMCA.

It also has retrofitted the Van Buren shelter in Franklinton for social distancing, putting in barriers and taking other measures, so it could move women and families from the Hilltop YMCA there.

There are 499 beds now for single men and women, and space for 114 families.

Sara Loken, a spokeswoman for the shelter board, said the beds have never been fully occupied, but she said she didn’t know the percentage used at any given time.

Keith McCormish, director of the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless, said the Community Shelter Board did a good job acquiring additional shelter space quickly and preparing for a potential onslaught of COVID-19 cases.

"I think they built a lot of capacity and then they didn't have a lot of demand," he said.

McCormish said it would be "good for the community to know" how the shelter board spent the additional money it received, and whether there are funds left to help with other critical needs for residents facing eviction or who don't have stable housing.

From March of this year through June 2022, the system is receiving more than $7.7 million to deal with the pandemic, including $5.5 million in public money. That $5.5 million includes $1 million from the city of Columbus and $2.2 million in private donations.

Heritage said the board is receiving another $10 million in federal grants to help operate shelters or help people with rent and utilities. The city of Columbus and Franklin County need to approve that first before it passes through.

That money cannot be used to help buy a hotel, Heritage said. The board is talking to the city of Columbus and others about that money.

And it still leaves a funding gap of close to $16 million to cover projected costs related to the pandemic during that time, according to the board.

The shelter board made some of its excess quarantine space available to other social service nonprofit organizations with clients in need of isolation.

Columbus-based Alvis, which provides behavioral-health services, recovery housing and re-entry programs, sent 29 people to the shelter board's quarantine facilities in the spring.

"They did charge for it," Alvis spokeswoman Gloria Iannucci said.

Most stays would have been around 14 days, and included room, food, health monitoring and transportation. The shelter board said it billed Alvis $108,882 for May and will be sending another invoice for services in June.

The shelter board received a $195,000 grant from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency that will allow it to defray Alvis' costs going forward if it needs to use the services again, according to Loken.

Maryhaven, a large treatment center that works closely with the shelter board, also sent some clients to quarantine but was not charged, a spokeswoman said Thursday.

Marcus Roth, spokesman for the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Ohio, said his group continues to push Gov. Mike DeWine for $137 million in federal coronavirus relief funds for emergency rental assistance.

The Franklin County Municipal Court resumed eviction hearings on June 1.

“The last thing the Community Shelter Board needs now are evicted tenants knocking on shelter doors,” Roth said.