Most of America now knows what it’s like to be cooped up inside a home with too many people for too many days. Multiply that feeling by about 40 to start understanding what things are like right now at Flagstaff Shelter Services.
Making sure every person experiencing homelessness in Flagstaff can shelter in place and practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic means that we suddenly have 177 people living full time in a comparatively small space.
A shift in priorities
Under normal circumstances, emergency shelter and housing first are our priorities. Every week, we have moved an average of two families from homelessness into safe, permanent housing, while also maintaining the emergency overnight shelter so that individuals who are living in a car or living on the street can have a hot meal and a safe, warm bed each night.
But these aren’t normal circumstances. We’re just trying to survive.
The emergency shelter at Flagstaff Shelter Services is usually just an overnight shelter. Anyone – regardless of faith, mental health or sobriety, can come in each evening and spend the night. In the morning, after breakfast, they have to leave unless they have a reason for being on-site.
Implementing COVID-19 pandemic guidelines means our shelter is full, with 177 clients, all day, every day. We are grateful that we so recently expanded, allowing us to take in so many clients who so suddenly need a place to stay in this crisis, but there is still a limit to what we can do. We have more space, but fewer volunteers, a supply shortage and little reserve funds because so much of our resources went to the expansion.
But these aren’t normal circumstances. We’re just trying to survive.
Our priority now is keeping everyone safe by maintaining social distancing and hygiene guidelines, while also maintaining enough staffing, supplies and food to ensure everyone’s physical and emotional safety in close quarters and strained conditions.
And of course, we have to screen for COVID-19 as clients come in the door and anyone who might be infected has to be removed and quarantined separately – that’s our responsibility as well.
Screening for coronavirus
As clients come in, they’re screened for COVID-19. If you’re not feeling well and have been in Los Angeles recently, for example, we take you aside for testing. Like most states, Arizona doesn’t have enough test kits, so there are two ways a person experiencing homelessness can get tested for coronavirus. The first is that if the person has insurance and a primary care physician – and many do – we help them place a telehealth call to their doctor to determine whether they can get a referral for testing. A physician’s referral is the only way most people can get COVID-19 testing in Flagstaff, currently.
If the client doesn’t have insurance, it is the county health facility that handles the referral and testing. Once a client has been tested, they need to be quarantined in our offsite quarantine facility until the test results come back. If they test negative, they can return to the emergency shelter.
Social distancing in emergency shelter
Inside the shelter, all clients are sleeping head to toe as we’re trying to observe social distancing, but it’s not a big shelter. We disinfect surfaces every five minutes and we’d like to follow the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s rules about masks for anyone who even looks like they might sneeze, but we only just received any PPE (personal protective equipment) in the last few days and it’s only a few items – nowhere near enough to get through even a single day if we were following standard health procedures.
There are a lot of people in a small space and hygiene isn’t even our biggest issue – crowd control is.
Night and day
A lot of our clients have alcohol and substance abuse issues and many more have mental health issues. We’re used to that – these are our regular clients and we see many of them every night under any circumstances but it’s usually at bedtime – they come here for a meal, a shower and a good night’s sleep. Now, they’re here around the clock, too many in too close quarters.
As we’ve all discovered in our own households, staying polite and good-natured to people you’ve been sharing space with for too many days in a row is challenging – even when you love each other and don’t have any underlying mental health issues.
At the emergency shelter, helping everyone stay good-natured and keeping their distance from each other is suddenly a big part of our day, even while we’re also disinfecting, preparing meals and washing clothes.
It isn’t just that our clients are here all day – it’s also that there are more of them than usual.
Flagstaff, like other cities, opted to release many non-violent prisoners from jails when the pandemic hit. A large number of inmates were released into Flagstaff with little money and nowhere to go. They came to us.
In addition, Flagstaff has closed its libraries, community buildings and many other public centers where people experiencing homelessness often spend their days. That means there’s a large population of people with nowhere else to go who would be moving around the city, often staying in groups for safety and warmth.
It’s fortunate that we expanded — we haven’t had to turn anyone away, but we have a lot more people for a lot more hours a day than either the staff or the clients are used to.
That’s a public health risk to the entire community in a time of contagion. The county government understandably does not want a large population moving around the city right now, so anyone who can’t shelter in place safely and indefinitely is being asked to come to us.
So people who would otherwise be in jail or living on the street during the day or sleeping in tents in the forest, are coming to us instead. It’s fortunate that we expanded — we haven’t had to turn anyone away, but we have a lot more people for a lot more hours a day than either the staff or the clients are used to.
Supplies and staffing
We also are having the same supply shortages as everyone else in the country: our need for toilet paper skyrocketed in the last few weeks and while private citizens can’t get more, neither can we. We’re feeding three meals a day, washing more clothes, changing more sheets and using disinfectant by the gallon and all of that takes more money than we had budgeted for.
In the middle of all of that, volunteerism is down. We’re also down three regular employees whose health is too fragile to work in a high-risk environment and we need help more than ever, so we’re hiring for eight more, but even residents who can’t get a job right now are hesitant to work in such a high-touch environment. In the coming weeks, we expect to have 35 employees, up from the normal 25, but it’s taking time to get there.
Donations are also down at the time when our need is greatest. We had to postpone our Feast for Flagstaff fundraiser, our biggest annual event, which should have brought in about $125,000 to see us through the summer.
Flagstaff Shelter Services can’t wait until fall — there is nowhere else for our clients to go.
It will instead be held in the fall, but of course, the funds we raise come from the community and when the community takes an economic hit, so do we – there’s no telling how well a fall fundraiser will do.
The good news
All of that may sound hopeless, but it’s not. Sheltering those who have nowhere to go is what we are here to do. We don’t know what the future holds and we can’t wait until fall to make up for our losses. In a time of crisis, everyone wants to help and no one is sure what they can do. Here’s what you can do:
We need money: money for food, supplies, health care and other essentials. The entire world is in a crisis and one bit of that crisis is close to home and it’s manageable if Flagstaff is willing to help. Flagstaff Shelter Services can’t wait until fall — there is nowhere else for our clients to go. We’re putting out the emergency signal here and now; Flagstaff Shelter Services cannot survive without help. Please donate what you can.
Ross Altenbaugh is the executive director at Flagstaff Shelter Services, the largest emergency shelter in northern Arizona. The nonprofit is open around the clock to anyone in crisis, regardless of faith, mental health or sobriety. In addition to offering emergency shelter for individuals, the organization also provides permanent, stable housing to families experiencing homelessness. An average of two families a week are moved into permanent housing and more than 85 percent of them do not return to homelessness.