Please visit your state or city Health Department website for information.
This letter is NOT meant to replace any CDC or Health Department information.
Dear Shelter Provider,
Hello! I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing to offer you something that may help you protect your population. I am specifically thinking of shelters located in cities and states that have no plan in place yet. We’ve got to do everything we can for our shelter guests and staff. I believe you want to do that. Think of this as a questionnaire to establish your own plan and response rather than a set directive.
If you are working at a shelter you, your staff, and your shelter guests are on the front lines. Please consider this brief letter as a tool to think about your facility and your population during the COVID-19 crisis. We have taken drastic steps and I know you will to.
You may feel overwhelmed. I know I do. I am not a medical professional or expert but I have worked at a large homeless shelter in Chicago for over 30 years. Cornerstone Community Outreach has 4 shelter programs (families and singles) totally 330 people, a food pantry, free clothing store and many other services. Many shelters and service organizations are having to make hard decisions, scramble for resources, and implement changes in a time of crisis. Literally everything has changed in the last few weeks as we have tried to respond moment by moment in this crisis. You’re shelter facility and programs are different than mine. In light of that, it is important that you use CDC and Health Department recommendations and implement them for your own setting. I hope the questions and comments below help you in this difficult time.
Response to COVID-19 Symptoms-
Call your local Health Department and ask them what your process should be for someone who is living in a homeless shelter and displaying symptoms of COVID-19. If you are told to just send a shelter guest to the ER be sure that you call ahead so that the ER knows someone is coming who has symptoms. *It is very important that you let them know that the person arriving lives in a homeless shelter with many other people. This is so critical. Require discharge papers when the client is released with a negative test. If they have a positive test demand hospital quarantine. Absolutely demand hospital quarantine.
Make sure your staff are constantly surveying your population for symptoms and reporting to you. Cities and states are responding differently at this point so I don’t want to tell you our system in Chicago and you find that it is useless in your city. Research what you should do now and let your staff know so everyone going through the proper process.
If someone is having difficulty breathing call 911 immediately.
Three Critical Components-
Handwashing, Distancing and Disinfecting
Print and post handwashing guides in all your bathrooms. You can find them on the CDC or Health Department website. Repost them as needed. Remind staff and shelter guests frequently. Post additional signs telling everyone (staff, shelter guest, adult, child) to wash their hands before and after entering the program space, and other critical times such as meals and after using the bathroom facilities. Most of our shelters have common bathrooms which makes combating this virus an even greater challenge.
Immediately establish protocol for increased disinfecting. Do you have janitorial staff or a maintenance team or person? Do you have the right products? If your supplies need to be mixed with water, are they being mixed with the correct ratio? If you have multiple janitors how can you stagger their schedules to allow for early/ late/ weekend/ disinfecting coverage? Who else can disinfect? Recruit them. Supply them. Think outside the box.
Make sure whoever is disinfecting wears a mask and gloves while they do the work.
If you have to, create a checklist of everything that needs to be disinfected and the frequency of disinfection. For example, all door push bars, doorknobs, light switches, faucets, toilets, surfaces, touch pads, all phone services, all computer keyboards, tables, chairs, stairway railings, basically every single thing a hand can touch. Make this into a checklist with set times and places include a date and initials for the person doing the work. Establish a place where these checklists are turned in. Ensure the work is getting done.
Many of us provide shelter in open dorms with shared bathrooms and meals. We have to use all our creativity and resources to make people as safe as possible in this sort of setting. Post signs about distancing and remind everyone of its importance. The CDC states that 6 feet should be a minimum for social distancing. Do you have that kind of space? Can you request that some shelter guests move to another location which would allow for adequate space? Can your city officials or clergy help you access a vacant space that can be used temporarily for this purpose?
Single Open Dorm Shelter Space
How close are your shelter beds? Can they be moved 6 feet apart? Do you have a common area that beds can be spread out into? Can you ensure you still have a walkway for staff, fire safety, or health care professionals to get through? Can you put elderly and aging single shelter guests (60+) in an area that is further from your younger population while still allowing everyone to have beds 6 feet from each other? Can you do the same for medically vulnerable people who are under the age of 60? Do you have bunks? Can you make sure no one is on the top bunk? In a single shelter program, as much as you are able, stop having a person on the top bunk unless they are related. An individual should have a single bed or lower bunk that is at least 6 feet from the next bed. I know this is extremely challenging for many of our programs. The Health Department states that shelter guests should sleep head – to- toe.
Family Open Dorm Shelter Space
How close are your shelter beds? Do you have bunks? Do you have a common area that beds can be spread out into? Can you ensure you still have a walkway for staff, fire safety, or health care professionals to get through?
If necessary, nuclear families should have beds closer to one another while leaving a minimum of 6 feet between beds that are occupied by other families. If you cannot create 6 feet of space between beds, can you reach out to your city officials or clergy and ask for part of your population to be moved to a safe space were social distancing can take place? This feels drastic but remember it is not permanent. Work toward distancing. It’s critical.
Create a COVID-19 Response Team-
You will need a team. Be thoughtful. Who’s dedicated? Who are your action people? It’s important that you don’t feel alone or hesitate in implementing important next steps. You know your organization and your unique configuration. You may need more or less people on your team depending on your size. Create a team that works.
Who knows the shelter inside and out and will act? Shelter Team Coordinator
Who will tell everyone what needs to happen now? Internal Communications Coordinator
Who communicates with your city funders and coordinators? City Communication Coordinator
Who has your budget and manages your money? Financial Coordinator
Who is over the kitchen? Kitchen Disinfecting Coordinator
Who is your supplies person? Supply Coordinator
Who is over facilities/ janitorial team? Facilities/ Disinfecting Coordinator
Who is over shelter for singles? Single Shelter Coordinator
Who is over shelter for families? Family Shelter Coordinator
How will your team communicate with each other and distribute information to your larger organization? Immediate information may need to go out via individual or group text. Use what works. Text, Google Chat, Slack, use tech options to speed communication and reduce human contact. Use a platform that works for you.
Immediately stop –
Volunteers (I know that’s a tough one)
Donations of clothing and household items
Allow only police, medical staff, government employees dealing with child safety, your essential employees and shelter guests into your facilities.
Notify security personnel and reception staff. Post signs on your doors explaining that this is a temporary measure to protect the health of everyone.
Survey your staff-
Who is older? Who is medically vulnerable? Who is non-essential? Who can work from home? Give them the supplies to do that and send them home.
Think ahead. Who will you lose if bus and train service is stopped? Who will continue working? What roles can you reduce in order to fulfill other essential roles. For example, can one of your case managers work in the kitchen? Or in another shelter program that may be short staffed for the moment?
Tell your staff that they must stay home if they are sick. We are all afraid of having no staff but being responsible to send home sick staff is crucial to reducing illness.
Make sure that your employees have a letter of verification so that if they are stopped by law enforcement they can prove that they are an essential worker.
Meals/ Facilities –
Do your shelter guests eat in a shared dining room? Can you spread out the tables? How can you creatively make as much distance as possible in the space you have with the population you serve?
If you have several programs, eat in shifts.
- Disinfect all doors, tray racks, tray slides, sneeze guards, tables, chairs, and serving surfaces. 2. Allow one program in, allow them to eat.
- Have them return to their living area.
- Disinfect all doors, tray racks, tray slides, sneeze guards, tables, chairs, and serving surfaces. 5. Allow one program in, allow them to eat.
- Have them return to their living area.
- Disinfect all doors, tray racks, tray slides, sneeze guards, tables, chairs, and serving surfaces.
You get the idea.
Do you have individual rooms for your shelter guests? Thank God and make sure all meals are eaten in their rooms. Don’t think about the roaches or other non-deadly issues. Think about your clients and staff who are medically fragile.
Meals/ Service –
I suggest that each of your kitchen staff wear a disposable plastic apron, gloves, and a face masks At All Times in the kitchen. That includes meal preparation. This is critical. If you don’t have all of these items. Do the most that you can with what you have. Make sure your protocol is being followed even when it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient. The world has changed and we are changing with it.
All condiments, drinks, and cutlery are put on the tray.
No boxes of ketchup or bins of salt packets are left out for people to paw through. No.
Shelter guests pick up trays from the tray line. Hands do not touch.
Do you have a security guard or team? How can you enlist them? Can they be part of the disinfecting team for all outside doors and reception desks? Can they remind people to social distance? What unique need do you have that they may be able to help with while operations are at a minimum and visits, volunteers are eliminated?
Immediately stop personal shopping and eliminate entry into your facilities.
Make up nutritious bags of groceries and distribute outside. Do not allow people in line to stand close to each other unless they are members of one household. Services continue, people are fed, everyone is safer.
Within shelter programs-
Immediately put signs at the entrances to all your program doors that EVERYONE (Staff, shelter guests, children, adults) must wash hands when they enter or exit the program. No exceptions. If you are blessed with hand sanitizer then set-up a hand sanitizing station at the entrance to the program. Make it mandatory.
Disinfecting must be extensive and on-going. First, who is cleaning the bathrooms, how often and with what supplies? What will work for your facility and population? How many sinks do you have? How many toilets? Do you have CDC, COVID-19 and proper hand washing signage in your bathrooms and in all areas of your facility? If not, do that immediately and make extra copies to replenish when they fall down.
Laundry service/ facilities-
Can you increase laundry service? If you have washers in your facility, lengthen laundry times. Think creatively so that your shelter guests can do laundry frequently.
Donations that will help you during this global pandemic are critical but do not accept unsealed, non-essential items.
Can they supply you with hand sanitizer, soap, gloves, masks, tissue, toilet paper, etc.? Do they know restaurant suppliers? Do they have contacts that you haven’t tapped into? Can they do that work for you since they may be at home and you are not.
Casework is difficult when the agencies you work with are closed. What can your case managers achieve in this crisis? Can they help in some of the areas we’ve already discussed? Can a healthy case manager be trained to do some other task at this time?
Case managers can join the disinfecting efforts, encourage shelter guests, de-escalate heightened emotions, etc.
Do you have access to an educated, informed medical consultant? Can you contact them at any time of the day or night?
Mental Health Professional-
Do you have a mental health professional that can speak with your shelter guests? Ideally this would be someone who could speak on the phone with them.
I understand how troubling this time is for shelter providers. I hope this letter helps you in some way. We’re all human and we’re all afraid. We can do our best as we work alongside our shelter guests who don’t have the luxury to “stay at home.”
I am praying daily for your homeless shelter staff and guests. You aren’t alone.
Cornerstone Community Outreach
A few helpful links-
Illinois Department of Public Health Guidance for Homeless Shelters
Center for Disease Control Recommendations for Homeless Shelters