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Homeless shelters brace for winter amid COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 12:27 PM, Oct 01, 2020

Lockdown has been been the way of life for many months at the Central Union Mission. No residents are allowed in or out, as part of an effort to keep COVID-19 out of this homeless shelter.

“That was a difficult choice for us, but our goal from the beginning was to provide a safe place for homeless men to be fed, sheltered and be COVID-free,” said Joseph Mettimano, president of the Central Union Mission. “And so not allowing new folks come in, that was heartbreaking.”

It was heartbreaking but effective.

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been no cases of COVID-19 at the shelter. It’s a feat they weren’t sure would be possible at the start of the pandemic.

“We started working on this process very early with the same countermeasures that everybody else was doing: handwashing, sanitizing hand railings, all those types of things,” Mettimano said.

That also included regular health screenings for residents and staff, all of which combined to create a coronavirus-free zone.

“I think we've gotten close. The guys that are here in the facility over the last six months and encouraging one another to try to follow the protocols that the mission has [in] place,” said Jonathan Moncado, a resident at the shelter.

While the shelter lockdown hasn’t been ideal for him and the other 100 or so men there, Moncado said there is a sense the sacrifice has been worth it.

“We just are thankful to the staff that they've kept us safe for all these months,” he said. “There hasn't been one confirmed case or any deaths.”

The same can’t be said everywhere.

Across the country, people who are homeless haven’t completely avoided COVID-19.

The most recent numbers show 400 of the 12,000 people who are homeless in Seattle tested positive for the virus, with at least two deaths. COVID-19 has infected 1,300 of the 66,000 people who are homeless in Los Angeles, with more than 30 deaths. Meanwhile, in Phoenix, about 500 of the estimated 7,400 tested positive, with at least 9 deaths.

Yet, the numbers available may not be the most accurate. COVID-19 testing for those who are homeless isn’t widespread. In addition, the recorded deaths from coronavirus often don’t list someone’s housing situation, all of which could be skewing the numbers.

Back at the Central Union Mission, there’s an even more pressing situation: a change in the weather.

“With winter coming, we want to make sure that we can do all we can to help folks to prevent them from getting hypothermia,” Mettimano said. “So, we're going to have some difficult decisions coming our way.”

It is a potential for tough decisions that may need to be made in the face of a devastating pandemic and unforgiving mother nature.