Just before a late winter storm was scheduled to hit this week, the executive director of a volunteer-run Jefferson County program that offers shelter during bad weather for people experiencing homelessness faced a grim decision.
LynnAnn Huizingh realized the coronavirus outbreak was keeping so many volunteers at home that she could not operate her Severe Weather Shelter Network in the suburbs west of Denver. On Monday, she shut it down at least until April 4.
Severe Weather Shelter Network normally opens its church shelters overnight when the forecast calls for temperatures of 32 degrees or colder when it is snowing or raining or 20 degrees or colder and dry. The National Weather Service predicts snow, wind and lows around 20 in the Denver area for Thursday night.
While Huizingh had to take a more drastic step than others who support people living in poverty, she’s not the only service provider feeling added pressure because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Volunteers — who often are older and more at risk of the worst affects of the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus — aren’t able to stock shelves at food pantries or cook meals at shelters. The cost of cleaning supplies and toilet paper, when those coveted items can be found, is eating into nonprofit budgets as they try to funnel most of their donations to services. Recommendations from health experts that people avoid crowds to stop transmission of the coronavirus clash with the reality of mats arranged shoulder-to-shoulder in shelter overflow rooms under the kind of conditions predicted for Thursday night.
Huizingh has been working with government officials and other service providers on how to help those she cannot shelter at night. That might mean distributing tarps and blankets during the day “to try to provide some kind of protection that will hopefully help them get through some really cold nights,” she said, sounding near tears.
“I will certainly be concerned for and pray for our guests,” Huizingh said.
People experiencing homelessness often have underlying health issues and, because of the stress of living on the streets, compromised immune systems. That can make them more susceptible to falling seriously ill if they contract the coronavirus.
“Bringing everybody together elevates the risk for everyone,” Huizingh said.
The Severe Weather Shelter Network brings together churches that provide space in their buildings and volunteers from their congregations to transport, greet, feed and stay the night with guests from the streets. The network also tries to connect the needy to other kinds of support, including permanent housing. Huizingh needs about 30 volunteers on a given night, when the network can shelter about 100 people. It normally operates from Oct. 1 through April 30. Huizingh said a reassessment would be made after April 4, when the latest advice from health experts would be taken into account as the network decides what to do the rest of the season.
The Jefferson County network has been operating since 2013. North of Denver, Adams County this year began piloting its own severe weather project, distributing hotel vouchers to those in need when overnight temperatures are expected to plummet. Samantha Olson, homelessness outreach liaison for Adams County, said coronavirus led to the closure of county government offices, including the office where the severe weather program coordinator interviewed clients.
Olson said they had considered moving the coordinator to a library, where many people experiencing homelessness already spend their days. But libraries in the county also have closed because of the coronavirus. The coordinator will be working Thursday out of the lobby of a nonprofit, Almost Home, in Brighton, Olson said.
She added that she and representatives from service providers and other government officials were working on a plan to distribute hand sanitizer — if it can be sourced — and information about coronavirus to people living in camps along the county’s trails.
It’s “our civic duty to let people know about the risks,” Olson said.
She said officials also were discussing what to do if someone experiencing homelessness showed COVID-19 symptoms. A large tent and cots from the emergency services department might be used to house people experiencing homelessness who are ill or could be infectious. Olson has researched what other communities across the country have done in response to the coronavirus outbreak, including buying motels or renting RVs for people experiencing homelessness.
“We’re just brainstorming,” Olson said.
Tests for the coronavirus are in too short supply to be offered during the county’s outreach to people experiencing homelessness, Olson said.
“We haven’t even talked about that because it just doesn’t even seem like an option right now,” she said.
In Denver, which has the metro area’s most robust emergency shelter network, the city government noted on Wednesday that a snowstorm was coming and encouraged those in need “to access existing shelters.”
“We’re ready and we’re eager to help … especially in this time of stress and concern about the coronavirus,” said Nissa LaPoint, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities.
Catholic Charities’s facilities in Denver include Samaritan House in Curtis Park. Samaritan House 25 rooms on its third floor for families experiencing homelessness as well as an emergency shelter on ground floor.
LaPoint said preparing for a snow storm is almost routine. But she said because of coronavirus, Catholic Charities has seen a decline in volunteers and staff.
“We’re definitely eager to get help from anyone who has time and is low-risk” of illness, she said.
At the Denver Rescue Mission, having few volunteers and staff has meant closing a vehicle and furniture donation and pickup program and other activities so staff can focus on providing such services as meals and shelter.
Denver Rescue Mission has consolidated its 900 or so beds from three shelters into two facilities, in part because of volunteer shortages and because some staff members who are considered more susceptible to illness because of their age and other factors have been asked to take paid leave.
“I’m not planning on closing any more,” said Brad Meuli, president and CEO of the Denver Rescue Mission. “We’ve positioned ourselves, I hope, well to be able to continue for some time.”
“The snow does create a huge problem,” he said.
He said mats may have to be used Thursday night.
“We may not have (some) people in beds,” he said. “I think we can try to meet the need that way.”
Health experts have been recommending social distancing, including staying at least six feet away from other people, to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“Please don’t think for a moment that we can social distance,” Meuli said, adding that among service providers and city officials, “everyone is crystal clear” on that point.
He said he and other service providers are keeping in close touch with the city on issues such as finding cleaning and other supplies.
“With people hoarding toilet paper, that’s becoming harder to find.”
He added people have offered support in the form of volunteering if they are healthy, funding “or in prayer. We just really appreciate this community.”
Under a public health order issued by the city on Monday, bars will be closed for eight weeks, and restaurants will only be open for takeout and drive-thru orders. The city has banned events with 50 or more people, with some exceptions, including grocery stores, pharmacies, food pantries and airport concessionaires. Cafeterias inside facilities like hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities are also exempt. City-owned public venues have been closed along with libraries and rec centers.
Monday’s public health order exempted from closure “shelters for persons experiencing homelessness utilizing social distancing and appropriate public health protocols.”
In an email to Denverite, city officials said they were “recommending distancing of (shelter) guests, as practical and possible.”
“We are not aware of any pending closures due to challenges with distancing of guests,” the email continued. “A much greater concern that we are hearing from our shelter partners is staffing issues. There is a strong need for young and healthy volunteers to help keep our community’s shelters in operations.”
People interested in volunteering were directed to register via the Mile High United Way website. It’s a wider problem. The state of Colorado has created a web site to connect organizations with “volunteers to help at-risk individuals across our state get through the COVID-19 crisis.”
Ahead of the first bad weather since the coronavirus emergency was declared, the email from Denver city officials added that officers were “following our standard cold weather protocol, which includes possible extension of shelter services depending on storm severity.”