Health

“We’re Taking it Day by Day.” North Texas Homeless Shelters Try to Protect Clients from Coronavirus

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Every day is a little different for Katherine Gonzales. She arrives at work at 2:00 p.m., armed with, in her words, “good intentions and a long ‘to do’ list.” By 2:15, that list is out the window. Some days, she has to balance a budget. Other days, she has to help her clients shower. Sometimes she even finds herself in the middle of a fight, playing peacekeeper to two parties arguing over personal space. As Executive Director at Monsignor King Outreach Center, the 30-year-old Gonzales serves one of our most vulnerable populations: people experiencing homelessness. 

The homeless shelter is based in Denton, but assists clients from all over North Texas. 

“We see people from Dallas, Fort Worth, all over,” Gonzalez says. “We’re really popular because of our model.” 

That model is a 30-day program, which gives people experiencing homelessness 30 days at the shelter, then encourages them to check back in a week after they leave. Gonzales estimates that over half of their clients return after a week, seeking shelter again. As concerns about COVID-19 (also referred to as simply “coronavirus”) continue to arise, she expects that number to rise — and she expects an influx of newcomers, too. 

“People are told they need to go home, they need to rest,” she says. “Our clients don’t have that option.”

Gonzales is just one of many social workers and nonprofit administrators considering how to best serve their clients during the coronavirus pandemic. As of Sunday, there are 51 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas. Seven of those cases are afflicting residents in Collin County. On Saturday, a Plano woman tested presumptive positive, marking the city’s first official positive test. 

“No one has the power to prevent this,” notes Dr. Terry Hockenbrough, president of the Collin County Homeless Coalition. “We have to work together to address the needs of our people experiencing homelessness, because they have no resources.” 

People experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to contract the illness, according to medical researchers cited by The New York Times. Once they are ill, a lack of health care and a presence of underlying conditions increase their chances of dying. At a shelter like Monsignor King, nearly 40 people sleep in one room. And while some resources are available to Gonzales and her colleagues, the questions far outweigh the answers. 

“For now, we’re taking it day by day,” Gonzales says. “We’ll be taking in new clients next week, but after that, we may have to reevaluate.”

That uncertainty is a common theme among her colleagues working in homelessness. Rick Crocker, CEO of The Samaritan Inn, a homeless shelter in McKinney, is troubled by the lack of knowledge. 

“There are a lot of unknown unknowns,” he says. “How long will it last? What are the best steps to take?” 

However, Crocker is confident in his shelter, his staff and the quantity of supplies. The Samaritan Inn’s clients and staff have not raised many concerns about the virus, and the shelter is following the same protocol it does for the flu: cleaning surfaces, encouraging clients to consistently wash their hands, and telling clients who are feeling ill to remain in their rooms. 

While Monsignor King’s clients sleep in one room, The Samaritan Inn houses 180 clients in a newer facility. Residents live in apartment-style units. At the moment, Crocker is more worried about life outside the Inn’s walls than he is about his residents. 

“We have people in our community that are working poor, living paycheck to paycheck,” he says. “As this gets worse, are they going to fall into homelessness? That’s what I’m thinking about right now.”  

The 2019 Point in Time Homeless Count determined that 558 Collin County residents are experiencing homelessness, up over 30 percent from the previous year. The people surveyed identified an emergency shelter as the area’s foremost immediate need. 

“Without an emergency shelter, people simply don’t have very many options,” Crocker says. 

Nearly 30 percent of the people experiencing homelessness in Collin County are unsheltered, sleeping in encampments, on streets, in vehicles or at a temporary shelter. It is these people that worry Gonzales the most. 

“Health and hygiene looks a lot different when you don’t have a home,” she says. 

That’s why she is typically eager to bring people living in encampments into the residence at Monsignor King. Shelters like Monsignor King utilize a program commonly called “street team outreach,” in which staff or volunteers travel to encampments and try to persuade its dwellers to seek resident at a shelter. Gonzales and her team are usually met with resistance. 

“A lot of them don’t want to come to a shelter,” she says. “They don’t want to leave their belongings. But when COVID-19 comes to our area, I think people will want a place where they can be safe.”

Yet Gonzales is not sure if she can—or should—offer housing to encampment dwellers. Like other shelters and nonprofits, she is playing the waiting game.

“We have no plans to close yet, but we’re looking at if we’re going to take in new clients,” she says. As she waits for the local public health department to tell her and her colleagues how to best handle ill or potentially ill clients, Gonzales fields questions and concerns from her current clients. 

“We have residents that are a little paranoid, and they should be, because they’re very vulnerable.”

Her small team of three is worried, too. Lately, volunteers have been cancelling shifts, wary of being near people susceptible to the illness. Even larger organizations, like The Samaritan Inn and The Salvation Army, are having trouble with staffing. These organizations are telling volunteers to stay home, putting more pressure on their paid staff. 

“We’re not having any volunteers come to our properties for now,” says Beckie Wach, executive director of The Salvation Army North Texas. “It’s been an issue that has put a strain on our staff, and we’re still working through it.” 

Wach says her organization is trying to be proactive about engaging its clients with info about the coronavirus, and will soon begin taking “town hall” events to its clients at their North Texas shelters. At these events, Salvation Army staff will try to educate and reassure their clients.

“Our goal is to remain calm,” she says. “We’re supposed to be the calming presence.”

Soon, that may be even more of a challenge for their staff, and for other nonprofits trying to stay ahead of the virus’ spread. Because of public health concerns, The Salvation Army recently cancelled a fundraising event. Wach acknowledges that they may have to cancel as many as seven more springtime fundraising events, which were projected to raise $2 million.

Likewise, Crocker says The Samaritan Inn is expecting a decrease in fundraising, which would force them to rely on emergency funds. 

For now, Gonzales is focused less on funds and more on how to help her clients. In addition to having to pick up work left by volunteers, she is juggling all of the usual challenges that come with an increasingly complex, burdensome job. 

She will continue to wake up, think about her good intentions, and prepare her “To Do” list for her 2:00 p.m. shift. In her spare minutes, she will catch up on the latest coronavirus news, and wait for more advice from the proper authorities. But she doesn’t know what tomorrow — or 2:15 — holds in store. 

For up-to-date information on coronavirus cases in Collin County, visit Collin County Health Department’s website. “This is the first place info regarding any new cases will be disseminated to the public,” says Steve Stoler, Plano’s director of media relations.

Tyler Hicks
Tyler Hicks is a freelance writer based in Dallas. He has written for The Dallas Morning News, American Way, the Dallas Observer and several other publications.

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