By Gabriel Lima
In the chapel room of the Durham Rescue Mission homeless shelter, around a dozen men listen to a reverend teach a class on life skills. Dressed in suits, they sit at opposite ends of the pews with masks on. The room feels vacant, the energy low.
Down the hall, the recreation room sits empty except for a pool table, some chairs and a mattress on the floor. Asleep on the mattress is a man. He is in quarantine; he will wait in the room for days until he is cleared to join the roughly 300 other men using the shelter’s services.
“Nowadays, I’d say half of my time is dealing with COVID in some manner,” said Gary Beasley, the director of operations for the Durham Rescue Mission.
The pandemic has presented a serious challenge for homeless shelters like the DRM. According to the CDC, people experiencing homelessness are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, as most are older adults or have underlying medical conditions.
“We normally teach classes here, programs based on changing your life, to build principles,” Beasley said. “Normally the residents go to this class four hours a day where they learn vocational skills, then do four hours of chore assignments to keep the mission going.”
“In that class, we would usually have about 40 to 50 people learning, but once the pandemic hit we could barely have 10 to a classroom,” Beasley said. “We’ve had to split the lessons into multiple classrooms.”
Barriers COVID-19 presents to volunteer services
Congregate living settings like homeless shelters are difficult to protect from the spread of COVID-19.
The men of the DRM live in various housing arrangements in the block around the main building. Smaller houses fit around four people, while the larger dormitories have up to 60 beds. Residents are required to wear masks and sanitize often — but these restrictions are hard to enforce and any form of social distancing is almost impossible. Most of the shelter’s clients sleep in bunk beds and share communal bathrooms and eating areas.
Organizations offering services to the homeless have struggled to maintain operations during the pandemic.
“We had a group of friends that served breakfast every Saturday in the parking lot of a local shelter for about three years,” said Leandro Almeida, a volunteer with the Food Distribution Center in Durham.
“When the pandemic began, we were forced to stop the services,” Almeida said. Even now, Almeida said he and the other volunteers struggle to safely provide the meals many in the local community rely upon.
The shelter he volunteered at implemented a limited exposure policy as a preventative measure to protect both volunteers and the individuals being served.
“From what I was told, the shelter was operating with reduced capacity to respect social distancing, and many services were moved outside,” Almeida said.
The pandemic has also affected the attitudes of those receiving help.
“I’ve noticed some of the people coming in are more on edge, more aggressive than before,” said Marcelo Corsetti, another volunteer at the FDC. “It’s been harder on everyone, there’s no way around it. We’re in a very difficult moment.”
Enforcing preventative measures
Despite the difficulties involved with protecting their residents during the pandemic, Beasley said he is proud that the shelter has managed to keep the number of concurrent cases relatively low.
“I think the most cases that we’ve had at one time is about four,” Beasley said. He credited the shelter’s isolation and quarantine strategy for making that possible.
“When someone comes in, the first thing we do is put them in quarantine for about 14 days, then we test them,” Beasley said. “If they are negative after that, we return them to our population.”
Beasley said when someone at the shelter contracts the virus, they are sent to one of the quarantine locations. He said there is one house, which holds a maximum of five people, that is used exclusively for those with confirmed positive tests. They bring food to the porch for the people living in the house, who must remain isolated until they receive a confirmed negative test.
“Once we have identified a positive case, we split the others they were living with into smaller groups in the quarantine locations,” Beasley said. “For example, if one in a group of 12 gets it, I will split the remaining 11 into two or three houses, and I will only add more to that house if they have it or have already had it.”
It’s difficult to know how many people in the facility have had COVID-19. Many do not report symptoms, and once they’ve been admitted, the DRM can not fully account for the resident’s actions.
“Does this stop anyone from getting it day to day? Not really,” Beasley said. “What we are trying to stop is that person walking in the gate, mixing in with everybody else and just causing a huge breakout at one time.”
Other ways the DRM continues to serve its communities
In addition to their shelter and food bank, the DRM runs events like Christmas toy drives and Easter celebrations.
“COVID has hit our events just like it’s hit everything else,” said Marcus Deese, the event coordinator for the DRM. “We’ve done our best not to let COVID stand in the way of doing what we can for the community, though. It’s just changed the flow of how we do things.”
“For example, our usual Christmas event has children come by and pick up toys,” he said. “Usually, we set aside some space outside for the children to play with their new toys. We can’t do that anymore, but we still make it a point to give out the toys.”
Ultimately, Beasley said he is cautiously optimistic about the future.
“I’ve had COVID already, and I’ve had my first shot of the vaccine,” he said. “I hope we’ll all get vaccinated as soon as possible. In the meantime, we’ll keep trying our best to keep everyone safe.”
Edited by Jennifer Tran.