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How Local Shelters and Housing Programs Are Managing COVID-19 Challenges

by on March 27, 2020 4:45 PM

As social distancing becomes a key tactic in overcoming the spread of COVID-19, shelters and other housing assistance programs face their own set of challenges as they work to make sure their clients are safe while no longer able to stay in typically close quarters.

Centre County's programs are so far finding ways to manage, but each could use some help from the community.

HOUSING TRANSITIONS

Even from the start, Housing Transitions was concerned about how to best separate people staying at the Centre House shelter, executive director Morgan Wasikonis said.

"Obviously we are very concerned about people being in close proximity to each other and our biggest concern quickly became what’s going to happen if one person gets sick," she said. "Chances are everyone in the house would get sick, not to mention our staff."

Initially, the number of staff in the house was reduced and residents were kept to one per room. But as things rapidly changed, Wasikonis said, it became apparent "more drastic measures" would be needed.

Some residents were relocated to apartments that were not in use for other Housing Transitions programs, while others were moved to hotel rooms.

"Right now, obviously, a hotel, even though they’re giving us a discount, is not really sustainable for the amount of time we’re going to need to provide support for these folks," Wasikonis said. "So we’re looking into other avenues, possibly looking at renting an apartment, or if someone has one they wouldn’t mind us using for a period of time where we’d pay the electric and things like that."

Though staff are working remotely, all of Housing Transitions' programs are still being provided. Case managers are working, night staff are answering phones so there is 24-hour coverage. Rapid re-housing staff are looking to find housing for people who are in shelter at Centre House and other shelters in the area. 

Housing Transitions also has permanent supportive housing that are at scattered sites around State College.

"That’s a challenge because a lot of times the folks are challenged with transportation and trying to get supplies and things like that, so we’re constantly checking in with them to see if we can pick up things, drop them off," Wasikonis said.

Because Housing Transitions isn't keeping regular office hours, it's difficult to accept in-kind or food donations. Financial donations can be made here.

"Obviously we’ve had some unexpected financial expenses and we’ve had to cancel the in-person fundraisers we were going to have," Wasikonis said.

Though current shelter residents have been relocated, Wasikonis stressed that Housing Transitions wants to hear from individuals and families who experience homelessness, noting that the crisis may result in more people who face housing needs. Anyone in need can call the shelter phone number at 814-237-5508.

"My big concern is, I just can tell the longer it goes on, the more people that are going to be challenged to be able to stay in the current housing they have," she said. "There’s just so many basic needs that are going to be at risk for so many people the longer this goes on."

She added that agencies are working together to provide continuity of services.

"There’s a lot of collaboration going on behind the scenes to try to work with specific clients, families and individuals," Wasikonis said. "It’s a developing situation so as we start to understand our longer term needs we’ll be even more collaborative."

For more information about Housing Transitions services and ways to help, visit housingtransitions.org and  facebook.com/housingtransitions.

OUT OF THE COLD

One of the shelters Housing Transitions collaborates with is Out of the Cold: Centre County, the community-supported nonprofit that provides emergency shelter, food and other services with the help of more than a dozen local faith congregations.

About a week ago, Out of the Cold appealed to the local community for help with a number of supplies.

"Many of our guests have been laid off of work and are feeling separated from community resources," a Facebook post said.

In just a few days, Out of the Cold received an outpouring of support, saying it was now well-stocked on most of the needed supplies.

"There is a reason we are called Happy Valley," a follow-up said. "We look out for each other, we are generous, we are kind to the vulnerable that are struggling. We have experienced exactly that in the last few days. It brings us some shining light in this darkening time right now."

But like Centre House, Out of the Cold, which rotates its shelters among participating congregations, faced the issue of maintaining distance among its staff and guests while still providing a critical service.

With funding help from State College Borough and Centre County, along with discounts from local hotels, 22 current Out of the Cold guests will be staying in hotel rooms for at least the next two to four weeks.

"This will ensure the best possible living situations for their health," a post on Tuesday said. 

Meals are being prepared and packaged by staff and volunteers, and staff will deliver them and do regular check-ins at the three hotel sites. Three churches are handling most of the sign-ups, but any community member is invited to participate by signing up here.

And while donations have helped Out of the Cold with current supplies, financial support is welcome to assist with the challenges ahead. Monetary gifts can be sent to P.O. Box 784, State College, PA, 16803.

For more information on Out of the Cold's services and ways to help, visit www.ootc3.org and facebook.com/outofthecoldcentreco.

CENTRE SAFE

Centre Safe provides help to those who experience domestic and sexual violence, and also operates an emergency shelter to provide safety and assistance. 

Executive director Anne Ard said like other shelters, Centre Safe couldn't keep people in its regular shelter because of the shared and communal spaces and no real way to isolate and quarantine if someone got sick. So now Centre Safe is sheltering clients off-site.

"That being said, our shelter team is working very hard to stay connected with those folks, because one of the things that is a byproduct of domestic violence often is real social isolation," Ard said. "We’ve been checking in with clients regularly and making sure they have what they need in terms of food, gas cards, that kind of stuff. We’re making sure as many of their needs are met as possible."

Residents are also being encouraged to call the 24-hour hotline if they need emotional support. The hotline (814-234-5050 or 1-877-234-5050) is always available for anyone to access services and to speak with a trained counselor advocate, who can provide assistance and referrals.

"We have been really, I think, ahead of the curve in this partly because we have such a robust group of volunteers who have worked on our hotline for years and our hotline services over night and on the weekends we’ve provided remotely, so people don’t have to come into the building to answer," Ard said. "So we know how to do that and it’s been fairly easy for us to transition to going to have our hotline answered remotely."

All of Centre Safe's services are still available. If someone needs a protection order, a counselor advocate will be available to help make that happen. For victims of sexual assault who go to Mount Nittany Medical Center, advocates can't be on-site because of current hospital regulations, but Centre Safe has worked with emergency department staff to connect a victim with an advocate by phone.

"The personal connection matters when you’ve been a victim of sexual or domestic violence," Ard said. "It’s important to have a connection with somebody who cares and who understands and can help you through it. We’ve really worked hard to make sure we can maintain the personal connection even if it can’t be in person."

And for anyone who would like to help, Centre Safe can use gift cards to give to clients for places such as restaurants offering takeout, grocery stores, and establishments like Sheetz where it can be used for gas and food. While community members can call ahead and see if someone is available at Centre Safe's office, the best way right now to send contributions is by mail: 140 W. Nittany Ave., State College, PA 16801-4811.

"That keeps everyone safer," Ard said.

For more information about Centre Safe services and ways to help, visit centresafe.org and facebook.com/centresafe.

Youth Service Bureau

Among the Centre County Youth Service Bureau's services are residential programs. The Burrowes Street Youth Haven serves youth ages 12-17 who are homeless, runaway or at risk of either because of difficulties at home. YSB also has supportive independent living programs for individuals age 16-21.

CEO Christine Bishop said YSB has decided to have staff physically on-site at the Youth Haven from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. only during times that youth are not staying there, but staff will continue to answer the 24-hour hotline (814-234-2100) at all times.

"We still have the capacity to meet a runaway or homeless youth should they need to access the shelter during hours that no one is physically present on shift," Bishop said.

Across all of YSB's residential programs, the number of people coming in and out of facilities has been "greatly reduced," and while normally visitors and volunteers are welcome, COVID-19 has put a temporary stop to that.

"Right now, our biggest concern is our ability to keep enough healthy staff members to cover shifts watching the kids in our care," Bishop said. "We have some good back up plans in place, but we just don't know the extent that we will be affected locally yet.

"We also face the same challenges that other families are facing right now who have multiple kids who will soon begin schooling online, and are becoming more and more restless with cabin fever."

YSB has restricted the amount of in-kind donations it can accept right now, but does have some items that are needed and can be dropped off. They include disposable nitrile gloves in any size, disposable face masks, hand sanitizer, alcohol prep pads, rubbing alcohol, toilet bowl cleaner and non-perishable food items that can be left for a few days on the porch at 334 S. Burrowes St., State College.

Other YSB services have been impacted in varying ways. The Bellefonte and Snow Shoe youth centers are currently closed and street outreach sites are not being run in person. But YSB staff have been connecting with groups of kids through Zoom and other online applications. 

"Our activities with these kids have included prevention programming, interactive activities and virtual field trips," Bishop said.

Prevention and Family Services staff members have maintained contact with families in-person and through technology "in order to check on them, help connect them to community resources and provide services such as parenting education," Bishop said.

For more information on Centre County Youth Service Bureau and its services, visit ccysb.com.



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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