Dane County’s homeless shelters have spent the past ten months implementing plans to prevent community spread of the COVID-19 virus through the local homeless population. Now, those same pandemic-induced adaptations are helping local shelters weather this week’s dangerous cold front.
Casey Becker, Director of Dane County’s Division of Housing Access and Affordability, says that the city and county spent most of 2020 preparing to expand homeless service into additional space if it became necessary.
“So when the cold came, we had already had practice in finding these temporary spaces and finding additional capacity,” she says.
Becker says that – in preparation for this week’s cold – local officials began moving some homeless residents into hotels. That strategy was initially intended for a different use: quarantining homeless people with a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
Kim Tesch, Program Director for The Beacon, a daytime homeless center, says that additional service is likely the only thing keeping their operations from being overwhelmed.
“We are getting close to capacity every day,” Tesch says. “If the city and county had not gone ahead and got those hotels, we would probably be going over our capacity — which would be an issue for us.”
Karla Thennes is the Executive Director of Porchlight, Inc. — a local shelter operator. She says Porchlight’s current men’s overnight shelter, located at the city’s former fleet services building, is actually operating at less than its normal capacity, despite the inclement weather.
She also chalks the reduced occupancy up to the city and county’s additional housing efforts.
“We had been serving between 115-120 at our new location” Thennes says. “In the last four days, since the snowstorm, the high has been 112 and one day we had 99. We have room for 250.”
The hotel strategy is just one part of a multi-level effort to provide shelter and aid to the city’s homeless population during the dangerous weather. The effort includes Dane County, the City of Madison, the city’s homeless shelters and independent advocacy and outreach groups.
Both Porchlight and The Beacon have slightly expanded their hours and are offering shuttle services between their two locations. Thennes says that the men’s overnight shelter is also providing health screening for all of its residents.
“We do temperature checks, we do the eleven public health questions every night,” she says. “If anyone’s symptomatic, we have a separate room with virtual nurses that can assess more deeply the symptoms and then they can also triage. They either say, ‘Oh, that’s a smoker’s cough,’ and send them to the shelter or they can send them to a medical respite hotel or directly to the emergency room.”
The Beacon, in addition to providing its own COVID-19 screenings, is offering hand and feet warmers, gloves, hats and frostbite testing.
The Salvation Army of Dane County is offering shelter and services for women and children at their downtown location at 630 East Washington Avenue.
But, all of those efforts and initiatives are only effective for residents who actually use the shelters. Enter Catalyst for Change, a Madison-based organization that does street outreach and mediation.
Catalyst is just one of a handful of groups the City of Madison has contracted with to help the city inform homeless residents of their resources. Michael Moody, the organization’s CEO and co-founder, says that they’ve been coordinating with other community contacts to support the citywide effort.
“Our mission is to get people into shelter and those people who would not or could not get into shelter to get them to go into the hotels,” Moody explains. “That, coordinating with different contacts in the community about people who are still out, making sure that they have appropriate gear, sleeping bags, hand warmers, supplies and then just to continually try to convince them to go inside.”
Expanding the city’s homeless services has been a major initiative for both the county and city in recent months. In late January, local leaders announced the location of a new, permanent men’s homeless shelter. Both the county and city have pledged about three million dollars each to the new shelter, which is tentatively set to open on Zeier Road near the East Towne Mall.
(PHOTO C/O Porchlight Inc.)