I am writing to ask you to take a moment with me right now to think about our homeless brothers and sisters as you navigate this COVID-19 pandemic. Pray for them. Pray for staff in the trenches. And in total vulnerability, I am asking you to pray for me as I continue leading us through this. As you sit hunkered down at home, consider what it would be like to not have a “safer at home” home to hunker down in. If you have some more time these days, continue reading. Here’s our reality at St. John’s:
On February 25, our shelter started creating contingency plans for how to serve the homeless population if coronavirus hit the area. We sought out guidance from the CDC before measures were even available. Once they were offered, we studied them intently, implementing every step and measure outlined long before the community conversation focused on this pandemic. When the Wisconsin Department of Health offered additional measures, we were reviewing them within minutes and making additional adaptations. I know other homeless shelters in the area were doing the exact same thing.
In March, we were emailing leaders and government officials, asking them to take conscious measures to account for their lower socioeconomic class constituents as confirmed cases of COVID-19 approached the state. We know the homeless population is not often high on individuals’ radar, but think about it:
• Many (not all) individuals experiencing homelessness tend to be more transient in nature, moving to get their needs met.
• St. John’s serves a very vulnerable, chronic group (Ie: those very underlying health conditions the nation’s been warning about)
• Homeless shelters serve individuals in close, congregate living. If coronavirus were to hit a homeless population, it could have devastating impact on both that homeless group as well as the community-at-large in terms of spread.
We weren’t able to engage the high-level support we sought early on (with the exception of one government official; his office was extremely responsive). And that’s not to fault anyone – we know this is a hectic, unprecedented time. Many people and groups were needing attention. Shelters were down the list. So, we turned our attention inward.
As an organization, our leadership team made some tough decisions. We shut down all our daytime programs and began running two 24/7 homeless shelter locations to promote social distancing and staying at home. Our extreme gratitude goes to Spring Lake Church who many know quickly jumped in to serve as that second, emergency shelter location! At the time of our split, we were serving the most individuals in our organization’s entire history and operating at 151% occupancy (in accordance with how CDC and WI DHS were asking us to respond to individuals still seeking shelter). Yes, 151% occupancy is as overwhelming as it sounds and presents as many challenges for social distancing as you can imagine.
Then, we chose to split our staff in two. We left 31 staff at the main shelter location where they continued to serve 84+ guests per night. Then, we pulled 13 staff to the Spring Lake location (mainly leadership level staff) and served an additional 40+ at that location. The thought was simple: if coronavirus were to hit either St. John’s group, we would limit its spread by limiting contact. We would maintain a pool of employees from which to pull, and we would decrease exposure of coronavirus to individuals that would otherwise be healthy. On March 18, we made that split and staff and guests alike have not crossed paths with one another since.
Staff started battling exhaustion and began fighting various respiratory illnesses going around the region. We adjusted. Then, a St. John’s employee (at the main shelter) who had traveled for a family emergency tested positive for coronavirus. Immediately, quarantine measures began with the Brown County Health Department. It took time to fully activate these quarantine measures because of the large shelter size (which again was being driven by CDC guidelines that we continue to serve).
In the meantime, a guest presented ill. We immediately quarantined that guest and sought medical treatment. Again, we had CDC guidelines and internal policies in place for such a moment as this and were fully prepared. But, when you live in congregate living, social distancing, safer at home, and all the other lingo we’ve come to embrace in the past month creates challenges. I’ll save you some of the details of the past week, but let me share with you all where we are at today:
• We now have 31 staff (the entire pool from shelter) who gave sacrificially in the trenches and are now sitting home, isolated and quarantined for 14 days, longing to offer support while waking up each day evaluating for symptoms.
• We have 36 guests quarantined in one location, 20 quarantined in another, and 30 guests who have not been exposed to coronavirus living in a 3rd location. Yes, we now have 3 locations. We have other guests needing shelter, but we are unable to take any additional intakes currently.
• We have 13 remaining staff, doing the work of 44 staff across these three 24-hour locations. Each of those staff have increased their level of engagement during this time. For instance, I am currently working 7 days per week running the second shelter location. I had one other dedicated staff member helping to carry the load on the evening shift until today, when he also called to report he’s now sick. Every staff member has a story like this. Our accountant is currently running one quarantine site, our communication staff is working overnight.
• On my last day “off” before the 7 day a week, every week, work schedule began, I fielded 107 phone calls in one day to organize and lead us through these quarantine efforts and move/divide guests between these three locations.
• We have multiple confirmed cases of coronavirus now among our family (none at our Spring Lake Church site) and it’s difficult. One is hospitalized, one is coughing up blood. This is scary stuff. And staff continue showing up to those quarantine locations, with very limited protective equipment, to serve.
• And if I as Executive Director were to get sick? Who leads the efforts then? No one knows. We are stretched so thin there is no plan except to pray that doesn’t happen.
It’s a lot, and if I’m honest, we’re weary. I don’t shed light on the current reality because it’s unique. I speak to how we are feeling because every staff member is feeling much the same way. It’s not unique at all. This is simply how the coronavirus pandemic works in homeless shelters.
The call is great, and these guests are family. Not only that, but we have other families. I’m a single mom. Others have young children. It’s a balancing act. And it’s a daily battle cry that we know most are not even aware is happening here in our community.
We need people standing in the trenches on our behalf praying and petitioning God because we know the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him (Psalm 33:18). We know He hasn’t lost sight of us and we are praying He place a refuge around our homeless brothers and sisters.
And yet. Yet, we also need to praise God. We have seen the church mobilized in ways we never imagined. The church is being the church in every sense of the word. Neighbors are loving neighbors. People are holding us up with donations, support, texts, meals for our guests. Restaurants have donated. Churches and nonprofits are offering space for showers. Our guests are incredible, resilient, positive, and hard working. It’s incredible that in a season as difficult as this, I would look and have the JOY and NEARNESS of the Lord in a way I could have never imagined before. And life is still offering oh so many reasons to laugh and smile along the way!
I’ve included this picture I took at dinner a few nights ago. A few of our Spring Lake guys, along with my coworker, wanted me to snap a pic so they could send a heartfelt thank you to the newest Packers Linebacker, Christian Kirksey, that ordered in food for them. They were so honored that he would be thinking about them in this season. They are equally honored each night when another meal group gives of themselves to ensure our fellas are well fed.
God is still God, God is still Good, and God can still be fully trusted!
Thanks for the prayers. Thanks for the support. And thanks for thinking of our brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness as we navigate this time together.[And before people freak out about distance just remember… this is our household family living together! It’s just not every day I show you 10 of my brothers ]
Alexia Wood, Executive Director