Serving homeless during pandemic has challenges

The people on Whidbey Island who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus are those without homes.

Serving this unsheltered population during the pandemic is complex work that becomes even more essential each day, as is preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place, Island County Housing Coordinator Joanne Pelant said.

While the county’s Housing Support Center and other programs have helped many people find homes, the island continues to have an unsheltered population that includes people considered chronically homeless.

“These people have significant disabilities,” Pelant said. “We are very concerned about them.”

The Haven, which is operated by the Whidbey Homeless Coalition, continues to provide overnight, emergency shelter at the Christian Reform Church just outside of Oak Harbor, but there are challenges.

Jonathan Kline, the executive director of the coalition, said the group is following guidelines and taking precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, but it’s had an impact.

Kline said organizers are following the six-foot social distancing rule in placement of beds at the Haven. But that means less beds can fit in the space, so the maximum number of people at the shelter has been reduced from 30 to 22.

Staff and volunteers are watching for people with symptoms, Kline explained. So far, nobody from the shelter has tested positive for COVID-19, but tests showed a couple people had influenza.

In addition, the shelter is in need of volunteers as some are staying away because of the virus. Kline said many of the volunteers tend to be older people.

“A lot of them are understandably not comfortable coming in,” he said.

The greatest need is for volunteers who are a “second set of eyes” overnight with a staff member, in case there’s an emergency, he explained; one staff member switches with another at 1:30 a.m.

Anyone interested in volunteering can call 360-900-3077 or email whidbeyhcinfo@gmail.com

People who need shelter register in downtown Oak Harbor at Grace by the Sea church each night. The people are asked to wash their hands and are screened for coronavirus symptoms. Fewer people are transported in the Haven van each run in order to allow everyone to sit far apart, Kline said.

The Haven has a separate section for anyone with symptoms. Kline said they are given masks, gloves and have access to a separate bathroom. Staff members also try to connect them with other services, including testing and health care. Kline said the group doesn’t want to decline shelter to someone because of illness.

“We are very grateful for them,” Pelant said of those who run the Haven. “They are obviously caring for the most complicated and vulnerable people in the community.”

Pelant said her staff has worked with the Haven on the protocol for dealing with the virus and are in the process of developing guidelines for all the homeless housing providers based on information from the county and state health departments, as well as the Centers for Disease Control.

An important role her staff and other advocates play is keeping in contact with unsheltered folks and watching for symptoms. Homeless people are one of the groups considered a high priority for COVID-19 testing, Pelant said, because many have underlying health issues.

“They fit in the most vulnerable category in any community,” she said.

Pelant said the county’s Housing Support Center is also focused on preventing others from losing their homes because of the economic impacts of the pandemic, she said.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s moratorium on evictions will help, she said.

Also, the support center has housing assistance grants available and homeless housing opportunities open up “from time to time,” Pelant said.

The county is also hoping to increase supportive housing with the help of a new grant and find space where unsheltered people with the coronavirus or suspected of having the virus can be quarantined.

“The goal is to minimize the surge in the use of hospital beds,” she said.

The Housing Support Center will likely stop taking walk-in clients but staff will meet people by appointment, talk on the phone and increase outreach in the community. People can reach the staff at 360-678-8284.

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