Homeless shelters run low on cash, volunteers


Sleeping mats and storage bins are placed six feet apart, in accordance with Centers for Disease Control guidelines, as protection against the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on the floor of the Ben Boeke Ice Arena in Anchorage, Alaska, March 21, 2020.

Matt Waliszek | Orzel Photography | Bean’s Cafe | Handout | Reuters

Homeless shelters across the country are facing volunteer shortages and increased costs as they struggle to contend with the deadly coronavirus outbreak while continuing to take in residents. 

Several shelters have made adjustments to continue offering the same services while minimizing contact. That means spreading out beds, sterilizing surfaces more frequently and offering services at a distance.

It’s been tricky for shelters around the country to adjust to new social distancing guidelines. But many have found solutions in which they’re still responding to people who need a place to stay while adhering to any government-issued advice or rules. 

“Now you’re trying to optimize the space you have, so you’re going to be either serving less people” or finding “alternate space for these folks” like trailers, motels and large tents, which can become costly measures, said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, a California nonprofit that provides about 1,200 beds in emergency shelters. 

It’s difficult to quantify the pervasiveness of homelessness because government agencies use different definitions to calculate it in the United States. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that 552,830 people experienced homelessness on any given night in 2018, counting people living in public streets and public spaces without a shelter, and people living in emergency and time-limited shelters.

As the coronavirus continues to spread, even as some states see infection rates plateau, a large burden falls on shelters and programs for those experiencing homelessness. Herb Smith, president of Los Angeles Mission, said that he’s concerned about the virus hitting the homeless population especially hard. People living on the streets may find themselves unable to seek adequate help if they catch the disease.

Some shelters told CNBC that they have been rapidly losing much-needed volunteers because of a fear of catching or spreading the coronavirus. Still, many shelter workers have been on the front lines every day, keeping them running and supporting residents and any newcomers. 

The outbreak has spread to dozens of countries globally, with more than 2 million confirmed cases worldwide and over 138,008 deaths so far, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. There are at least 639,600 cases in the United States and at least 30,985 deaths, according to the latest tallies.

This story is based on conversations with seven homeless shelters and with three people experiencing homelessness in New York, California, Michigan and Washington, four states that have seen some of the highest numbers of confirmed cases in the country. 

The losses

In states like New York, where officials declared a stay-at-home order to curb the spread of the virus, people have found ways to bypass feelings of isolation, using technology to keep in touch with others. But for some people living on the streets, isolation is not new. 

James Winans, interim CEO of the Bowery Mission, which operates five residential shelters in New York City, said that people experiencing homelessness usually don’t have predictable access to technology and often can’t rely on it to talk to loved ones.

Restaurant closures and the shuttering of public spaces created another obstacle. 

“People without a home lost access to all of their bathrooms,” Winans told CNBC. “Their bathroom was at a Starbucks, at a library, at a recreation center.”

To mitigate the issue, the Bowery Mission and other organizations have set up mobile hand-washing stations and shower units. “There are very few options right now for hygiene if you don’t have a home,” Winans said. 

The closures have also made it tricky for families who are experiencing homelessness to care for their kids, said Executive Director Marty Hartman of Mary’s Place, a nonprofit in Seattle that provides shelter to women, children and families. 

“This crisis has made them feel unstable, not sure where they’re going to find the resources to stay in housing, where they’re going to find child care, how they’re going to get their kids education, how they’re going to put gas in their car, how they’re going to be provided the food that they need when food banks are running lower,” Hartman said, adding that Mary’s Place tries to eliminate some of these worries and helps people get on their feet. 

Some people who’ve entered homeless shelters in recent weeks have lost out on time with loved ones. A woman who works at a nursing home decided to temporarily stay in a shelter to prevent potentially spreading the disease to her aunt and uncle, who are both in their 80s. She and her 8-year-old son found beds at Mary’s Place.

Kimberly Austin, a grandmother staying at the Mustard Seed Shelter in Michigan, said she misses her family, too, and would normally visit them. Under stay-at-home guidelines, she can’t. 

“My grand kids, I’m thinking, are they thinking of me? My daughter, what’s going on there? How are they doing?” Austin said she wonders. “I’m hoping they don’t get sick. Or [I’m wondering] what are they doing.”

While she’s still been able to FaceTime them, she misses in-person contact. “I’m a hugger,” she said. 

The front lines

Several shelters told CNBC that they’ve lost out on much-needed volunteers once officials recommended shelter-in-place guidelines, forcing staffers to step up. 

“Volunteerism has absolutely plummeted” at Mercy House, executive director Haynes said. To get around it, the organization has put in place “a much more aggressive staffing plan.” It’s also more expensive.

“You have to have people pick up extra shifts or work overtime or we need to hire additional stuff,” he said. “So you need to find paid personnel, which will elevate your cost. Food preparation has to be more carefully considered.”

Mary’s Place in Seattle saw similar drops in volunteer service, according to executive director Hartman, who noted that many volunteers were health-care workers. “A lot of those workers have more demands at their current hospital,” she said.

Mary’s Place has hired more people to help the 300 children in its shelter with online learning and other needs. It’s getting pricier to pay for the shelter’s normal staff as well. “With staff callouts, you realize you’re paying time and a half or double time,” Hartman said. 

At the Bowery Mission in New York, some residents act as volunteer crew members, one man who currently stays there said. David, who asked that CNBC not use his last name due to privacy concerns, works from 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. in the kitchen every weekday. 

Mustard Seed in Michigan has also lost its volunteers, Director Amy Bartels Roe said, but its staffers have continued running the shelter with adjustments in place. 

Shelters are taking other steps to keep their services available.

At Mustard Seed, for example, mental health services are now virtual. “But our ladies are saying it’s not the same as having the one-on-one meeting with a therapist or going to an AA meeting in person,” Roe said. 

South Oakland Shelter, also in Michigan, has paid for motel rooms to house people, said Ryan Hertz, president and CEO of Lighthouse, the social services organization behind South Oakland. “We started immediately raising funds to cover the cost of the rooms,” he said, describing a crowdfunding effort Lighthouse is running

Lighthouse sets up “rotating” emergency shelters in churches or synagogues in Michigan, each of which can hold between 30 and 35 people at a time, Hertz said. Donations and grants have allowed the organization to pay for hotel and motel rooms for residents and increase capacity.

“Our hope is that it’ll be around 200 people very soon,” Hertz said. 

The future

It’s not yet clear how the outbreak will weigh on shelters in the months and years ahead, as the coronavirus has wreaked havoc on supply chains and funding resources.

The Bowery Mission spends only a small portion of its budget on food because the organization has “such reliable sources of food donations that we were able to serve 555,000 meals a year on a food budget of $68,000,” said Winans, the organization’s interim CEO. But whether these donations will endure is a cause for concern. 

“We received a lot of food in the past from restaurants and catering companies that are now closed,” he said. 

Winans is also concerned about financial contributions to the privately funded Bowery Mission, as the American economy craters into a likely recession. In the last few weeks, the organization has seen generous support from donors. “But will they be able to continue to be generous?” he asked.

Los Angeles Mission also worries about whether private funding will “remain solid in spite of the economic uncertainties,” Smith, the organization’s president, said. 

Several shelters are anticipating confirmed cases among their residents and among the general population. Haynes from Mercy House, also in California, is unsure what a potential spike in cases might look like.

“I think we are all holding our collective breath and asking, what does this mean, who will it hit?” he said. 

In New York, at least 23 shelter residents have died from the coronavirus, and at least 371 have tested positive for it. In San Francisco at least 90 shelter residents have tested positive

But even if the coronavirus spreads to shelter staffers or residents, the work will still have to continue, Haynes said. 

“I have people putting themselves on the line who have kids of their own. This is hard. This is really hard,” he said.

“But the focus is on the clients. That’s why I have people sucking it up and showing up every single day. I feel a tremendous amount of compassion for my staff who are putting themselves out there.”



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