Everyone is being told to stay home to help limit the spread of COVID-19. But what does that mean for people experiencing homelessness? And how does social distancing work in emergency shelter?
Shelter House, which was founded in 1983, is the only shelter in Johnson County for people experiencing homelessness. Under normal circumstances, it has 70 beds available on a nightly basis and offers drop-in services, including shower and laundry facilities, as well as mental health support and employment counseling. During winter, it opens a second, emergency shelter.
When COVID-19 reached in Iowa, Shelter House was already above capacity. It needed to make drastic alterations to keep guests as safe as possible. Following the example of other nonprofit agencies and turning to offering services at a distance wasn’t an option.
“There’s no such thing as dialing into a shelter,” Shelter House Director of Development Christine Ralston told Little Village. “It’s great that there are many services in town where folks can call in for a service, but with the shelter, we have to have our folks there onsite.”
To keep clients, staff and volunteers safe, Shelter House had to quickly make changes to allow people to practice the basic social distancing — staying six feet apart — public health officials recommend.
Those changes included reducing the emergency shelter capacity from nearly 90 to a maximum of 45, and moving 29 individuals into apartments through its new rapid-rehousing program. Working with the Iowa City Department of Neighborhood and Development Services, Shelter House was able to secure 15 hotel rooms for its some of its residents.
The city is using money from the affordable housing and emergency housing funds to cover the expense of the rooms for 30 days, and looking at options on how to continue the funding if the need lasts longer than that.
“We wanted to get as many people into a safe space as we could right away,” Ralston said. “As people leave, we’re not going to turn others away if we can possibly help it.”
Shelter House is now open 24 hours a day to accommodate individuals who otherwise would spend the day in public spaces. This requires extra staffing and cleaning, given that they would normally clean when clients left for the day.
And while some programs such as employment support are still being offered by appointment, drop-in services — including laundry and showers — have been suspended to minimize direct contact between individuals.
Modifications like reduced capacity, increased cleaning and “constant vigilance” have helped Shelter House continue its mission, but there’s another pressing problem it is facing: lack of funding. While Shelter House has collaborated closely with the Iowa City government and continued to receive community donations, reducing emergency shelter housing and finding alternative housing for displaced guests has strained it already lean budget.
“The hardest thing is that we have two competing crises happening at the same time,” Ralston said about Shelter House’s grappling with COVID-19, while funds are falling short. “I don’t know that it’s possible for us to continue to provide the level of service that we always have.”
The most drastic financial hit thus far occurred when Shelter House had to cancel its 23rd annual Book Sale that was scheduled for the end of March. That fundraiser typically brings in about $25,000.
Ralston also noted that around 25 percent of Shelter House’s donated funds come from in-person donations, and those sort of contributions aren’t possible at the moment.
“Everywhere we look, something costs more money to provide services faithfully,” she said. “We’re going to have greater need in our community at a time when we have less physical capacity in our emergency shelter and as we’re flying through our financial resources early on in this crisis to keep people safe.”
Shelter House is working on grant applications to help make up for funding shortfalls. It’s also posting a constantly updated list of needed items — such as hand sanitizer, laundry detergent, paper towels and adult underwear — on its Facebook page, as well as information on how community members can donate those items. There is also information on how to donate money to help the nonprofit.
“Our community is consistently so incredibly generous in both the arts and in human services,” Ralston said. “It’s one of the great things about being in this place, and we need to tap into that right now. We need to care for each other.”