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COVID-19

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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Aggressive efforts to thwart the virus in the shelter system appear to have worked

It’s 7 p.m., and the line of weary men trails back from the front door, along the fence that surrounds the House of Charity and down the sidewalk lining Pacific Avenue.

Five at a time, the men enter the shelter with their backpacks and walkers, their suitcases and overcoats. At the entrance, health district workers check every man’s temperature and ask a series of questions.

“How are you feeling today?”

“All right.”

“Cough, fever, shortness of breath?”

“No.”

The smell of bleach is sharp. Sleeping pads dot the concrete floors, spaced 6 feet apart. Upstairs, men are showering. Up there, in the shelter’s usual sleeping area, they’ll sleep every other bed to keep their distance.

Periodically, shelter worker Andrea Hesler pokes her head outside and hollers to those in line: “Try to keep 6 feet apart, you guys. Six feet!”

Then she returns to handing blankets to the men after they get their bill of health and enter the only place in the city where they can lay their head for the night under a roof.

“This is pretty much home,” said Joel Kuespert, 38, who says he’s stayed at the shelter on and off since he was 15 years old.

Kuespert, like several others in line Monday night, said he was not very worried about the coronavirus. Others with him echoed that sentiment. Just up the street, where women were waiting to be screened and admitted to the temporary shelter space at Donna Hanson Haven, the story was the same.

Gail Wagner, a 66-year-old who said she’s fallen into homelessness for the first time in her life over the past six weeks, describes herself as someone who gets sick a lot. Still, she said she wasn’t anxious about the virus.

“I’m careful,” she said. “I’m clean.”

Health and shelter officials, on the other hand, have been very concerned. A month ago, Rob McCann, CEO of Catholic Charities, was so worried that the shelter might turn into a breeding ground for a deadly virus that he wondered whether it would be better to shut down the shelter.

Regular conversations and planning with health officials convinced him they could spread out the shelter population and implement other safeguards.

Kylie Kingsbury, homeless outreach coordinator for the Spokane Regional Health District, helped develop a plan to prevent infection among the homeless citywide – all while fearing what would happen if it did.

“We were waiting with bated breath,” she said.

To date, though, aggressive measures to “decompress” the shelters, ramp up hygiene practices, adapt food-service operations, quarantine those who are symptomatic and enforce social distancing seem to have helped prevent McCann’s greatest fear: There has not been a case of COVID-19 diagnosed among the homeless population here so far.

“Which is a miracle,” McCann said. “If you’d have asked us a month ago, I’d have said we’re in big trouble. … We’re five weeks into this, and by the grace of God we’ve got a building full of healthy people.”

Dr. Bob Lutz, the county health officer, said efforts to create social distance and safe practices in the shelter system were spearheaded by Kingsbury and epidemiologist Mark Springer, both of whom were on the front lines during a norovirus outbreak at the shelter in 2016, and both of whom have been working to contain an ongoing hepatitis A outbreak over the past year.

Still, Lutz said it’s important to understand that the threat from the virus remains.

“We are not out of the proverbial woods by any means at this point,” Lutz said.

‘Not their norm’

If there is anything in downtown Spokane that still resembles pre-virus days, it is the visibility of our homeless brothers and sisters. The downtown sidewalks seem emptied of almost everyone but them. On corners and under railroad bridges, street people still gather, sometimes closely and in groups.

It’s one of the realities of trying to thwart a viral infection among this population: Encouraging social distancing requires continual effort among people who do a lot of sharing – of cigarettes, of bottles, of blankets, of needles – and whose lives are full of such trouble that invisible threats may not register as priorities.

“Social distancing is not their norm,” McCann said. “It’s not their lived experience.”

Operations at the House of Charity, which usually sleeps men and women, have changed dramatically, as they have in shelters and homeless housing programs all over the city.

Hot meals have been replaced by bagged lunches and dinners at the shelter – more than 17,000. The bathrooms are cleaned after every flush. To find enough space, “pop-up” shelters have been opened in the downtown library, in permanent housing buildings operated by Catholic Charities, and soon at Gonzaga Prep.

The health district screens every person coming into every shelter, taking temperatures and asking about symptoms. Those who show symptoms are tested and quarantined until the results return – so far, several symptomatic people have been tested and found negative.

For most of the past few weeks, Catholic Charities was using the quarantine facilities that it now builds into every one of its permanent housing havens – the four 50-unit facilities that provide long-term housing and support services in the same neighborhood on the east end of downtown as the House of Charity.

Catholic Charities began including the quarantine spaces after its experience with the norovirus outbreak in 2016 that forced the temporary closure of the House of Charity.

“After the norovirus outbreak here we decided we would never have another virus crisis out in the streets,” McCann said.

But as of last week, the county opened an isolation facility at the county fairgrounds for people who need to be quarantined; since then, homeless people awaiting a test result are bused to the isolation facility, and then returned when their tests clear. That freed up space in the permanent housing buildings for some drop-in shelter space to take women who would have otherwise gone to House of Charity.

The fairgrounds isolation space, based in one of the large agricultural buildings, is not for the homeless population specifically, but for anyone who needs it, Lutz said.

“This is an isolation site for the entire community,” he said.

Lutz said the health district is nearly ready to expand its screening program for the homeless, adding a mobile unit to screen those who are in camps or otherwise unsheltered. All of the work relies heavily on partnerships with institutions across the city – Washington State University, CHAS, Spokane Transit Authority, nonprofits galore.

Meanwhile, what’s uncertain for the homeless population is what’s uncertain for all of us: how and when this comes to an end. If some version of a phased-in reopening were to occur – with the least-risky activities reopened before the most risky – shelters may well be later to return to normal.

“When it comes to people experiencing homelessness,” Lutz said, “I am going to be very, very cautious about allowing us to go back to business as usual.”

‘Not just protecting them’

At every shelter and housing facility across the city, people are working in close quarters with others in a job that puts their own health on the line.

Though there has not been an infection among the homeless, they remain generally at higher-than-average risk, which means that people like Hesler – who was handing out blankets and calling out “Six feet apart!” – are at higher-than-average risk, as well.

“And not just me, but my partner,” she said. “I do the best I can to let all our patrons know to stay clean, wash their hands, because it’s not just protecting them. It’s protecting myself and my partner.”

By 7:30, the line outside the House of Charity was still moving slowly, five at a time, and the health district screeners – masked and gloved and wearing face shields – were still taking temps and asking about symptoms.

In the dining room and every other available space, men were taking to their pads on the floor. Some had unpacked their things and were rooting through them. Some took off their socks or pants, and sat, resting. Some lay down, ready for sleep.

Terry Coder, a 59-year-old man with a big, bright, white beard, was preparing to settle in for the night. Coder has been staying at the House of Charity for about a year, he said. Like the others, he said the virus was not a major worry for him.

“I pretty much stay to myself,” he said.

Virus aside, these days are testing Coder’s patience the way they are testing everyone’s patience – by crashing our routines, by closing off the places we like to go and things we like to do, by making it hard to stay occupied.

Coder is frustrated with it all. Can’t get a beer. Can’t go into a restaurant or coffee shop.

“Can’t even hang out at the STA Plaza,” Coder said. “Thank God for places like this.”

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