These beds where homeless people spend nights at Sojourner House homeless shelter in Eau Claire are too close together to maintain the social distancing standard of 6 feet that public health officials have recommended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
These beds where homeless people spend nights at Sojourner House homeless shelter in Eau Claire are too close together to maintain the social distancing standard of 6 feet that public health officials have recommended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Extra distance to avoid spreading caronavirus leads to fewer beds and a need for new venues

Matthew Hey knew the coronavirus outbreak meant his odds were worse than usual of getting one of the coveted spots inside the Sojourner House homeless shelter in downtown Eau Claire. 

The somber mood among the few dozen gathered outside the shelter’s entrance before dusk on Tuesday was much like any other evening, except on this occasion the chance of obtaining a meal and a bed for the night was less than normal, thanks to restrictions put in place last week limiting the number of people who can stay there because of concerns of spreading COVID-19.

Hey was grateful he was able to spend Tuesday night at Sojourner, a night on which nobody was turned away. However, oftentimes reduced capacity has meant not everyone who wanted a bed and a meal there received it, shelter workers said. 

The shelter has a maximum capacity of 61, but that figure was reduced to 48 in recent days because of worries the building’s cramped quarters and the close proximity of beds there could create perfect conditions for the virus to spread. 

People congregate outside the Sojourner House homeless shelter in downtown Eau Claire. Shelter operators have reduced the number of people who can stay at the shelter because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

A nearby overnight warming shelter that houses people who can’t find space at Sojourner also has reduced its numbers because of COVID-19 concerns. The warming center has a maximum capacity of about 20, one of its organizers, Ken Adler, said, but that figure has been cut to no more than eight people at once. 

“‘We need to limit occupancy because of worries about spreading the virus,” Adler said. “With so many people in close confines, we know that if one person gets this virus, it could really take off like wildfire.”

Similar efforts to find emergency shelters for homeless people are happening across Wisconsin, homeless advocates and government officials said. From Madison to Milwaukee to Green Bay to La Crosse, shelter operators are adding special cleaning procedures and are seeking other spaces to house those without homes of their own. 

Homeless people staying at the Wausau Warming House shelter in that city on Tuesday began spending nights at a former parks and recreation department building, a location that provides those staying there additional space, making COVID-19 transmission less likely. 

Likewise, since last Thursday people using a homeless shelter in La Crosse have spent nights at a private school building not currently being used, said Kevin Burch, director of housing services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of La Crosse, which oversees shelters in Wausau, La Crosse and Eau Claire and operates housing programs in 17 Wisconsin counties. 

With emergency shelters found, original shelters in Wausau and La Crosse will be used as sites where homeless citizens who exhibit virus symptoms would be isolated from others, Burch said.

The “Safer at Home” order announced Monday by Gov. Tony Evers stipulates that Wisconsin residents stay home except for necessary trips for such items as food and prescription medications, a sign of concerns about the virus that as of Wednesday had been detected in 585 people statewide and had killed six. 

Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said such populations as nursing home residents and those staying in homeless shelters are at higher risk of contracting or spreading the virus, in part because of their close proximity to each other. “The risk of those groups contracting this virus is definitely a concern,” she said. 

‘Huge concern”

Finding emergency shelters is especially important given the close proximity of shelter spaces and the highly contagious nature of the virus, Burch said. Among the methods being implemented to try to limit COVID-19 is “social distancing,” meaning people are advised to stay at least 6 feet apart to avoid contracting or spreading the virus. But keeping that distance from others simply isn’t possible at shelters, Burch said, given often-crowded conditions.

“We know the people staying at shelters are at high risk for contracting the virus,” he said. “The chances of homeless people becoming infected with this and transmitting it, that is a huge concern.”

Homeless shelters in Superior won’t relocate clients but have instituted extra cleaning precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. Staff at the two Harbor House Crisis Shelters that serve homeless families and women are “sanitizing everything” and are consulting with a doctor in Duluth, Minn., regarding best practices to protect against COVID-19, case worker Krystal Brandstatter said. 

“We are taking every protective measure we can,” she said, noting the shelters are at their maximum capacity of six families and four single women.   

Adding to COVID-related risks at homeless shelters is the fact many in that population struggle with health concerns, some of which are chronic and can stem from living on the streets. Most homeless people lack health care access, meaning medical problems often go without treatment and become more significant issues, said Adler, a doctor. 

“So many homeless people have health conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart conditions,” he said. “Those and other problems are risk factors that make this virus very dangerous for them.” 

While procuring larger emergency shelters could help slow the virus, finding them isn’t necessarily easy. During a weeklong search multiple issues — especially a requirement that any building used as a shelter be outfitted with a fire suppression system — got in the way of procuring a site, said Tom Wirth, deputy director of the Eau Claire County Human Services Department who headed the search effort in Eau Claire.

At least five potential locations fell through, he said, before one was found Wednesday. Other potential sites considered also are in demand by health care organizations seeking added space as part of COVID-19 planning.

“We’ve hit hurdle after hurdle trying to do this,” Burch said, “so it feels good to have a site we think will work.” 

Burch declined to release the location of the Eau Claire emergency shelter until both sides finalize the agreement. He said he hopes that can occur within the next few days.

“We needed to do this to protect homeless people,” he said. “It’s one way we can help prevent the spread of the virus.”