Homeless shelters in ‘desperate need’ of support as COVID-19 spreads

MADISON, Wis. – Homeless shelters are seeking support as they battle their own challenges with the COVID-19 outbreak.

“There are things we are managing now that could very quickly fall apart,” said Karla Thennes, executive director of Porchlight Solutions to Homelessness. “We are in desperate need of some things to make some changes.”

As many are told to stay home, that’s not an option for those who have no place to go. Thennes said Porchlight’s three overnight shelters for men accommodated an average of 130 people in March and about 140 each of the past three days.

“We have essential services that cannot stop in a crisis situation, and that’s what we’re dealing with,” Thennes said.

Essential supplies, however, such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer are nearly gone, according to Thennes, all while being low on staff and concerned about the health of older volunteers.

Thennes also said it’s unrealistic to follow certain guidelines, such as the social distancing recommendation of six feet.

“We are full,” Thennes said. “People are sleeping on mats on the floor. We are inches apart.”

She said Porchlight plans to eliminate the 90-day limit for clients during the pandemic, but is worried it’s not realistic to keep operating out of the three locations. She’s pushing city, county and state officials to find a larger site to use as an emergency shelter, suggesting the Alliant Energy Center, so they can quarantine if need be.

“What I need to not happen is to have my first case in the shelter and have to quarantine 150 people in the basement of a shelter including my staff,” Thennes said.

She said the county is working on getting hotel rooms for individuals without homes who are actively symptomatic or are at high-risk.

Porchlight has also implemented more cleaning procedures. They plan to start screening for symptoms at intake but currently lack the supplies.

“Many things need to happen for us,” Thennes said. “Right now, we’re just surviving.”

The Salvation Army of Dane County is facing similar challenges sheltering about 40 women and 22 families a night. Melissa Sorensen, Executive Director of Social Services, said staff is doing their best to keep beds six feet apart, reduce face-to-face interactions and provide more hand sanitizer.

“We just don’t have the space,” Sorensen said. “To limit 10 people per social area is impossible in a homeless shelter.”

She said things are changing by the minute, so they’re taking it day by day.

“I’ve been with the Salvation Army for 13 years, and we’ve never had anything we’ve had to do like this,’ Sorensen said.

The Salvation Army is working with health officials and other shelters, planning in case the coronavirus does infect a client.

Despite the challenges, Sorensen said services will continue.

“The Salvation Army is the only emergency family shelter and emergency women’s shelter in all of Dane County. If people can’t come here, they have no place else to go,” Sorensen said. “We’re going to keep offering resources to the most vulnerable folks in our community.”

Those who would like to help can visit the Salvation Army’s website or Porchlight’s Facebook page to keep up on the current needs.