Acting rapidly to protect the homeless community and prevent the spread of the virus, the City of Madison and Dane County worked swiftly to launch a concerted effort designed to protect highly vulnerable, unhoused persons during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The effort included four major elements.

  1. Removing families from the Salvation Army’s shelter for women and families to allow more space for single women.
  2. Identifying and moving higher risk persons (those over age 60, those with underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems and pregnant women) out of crowded shelter facilities, where they are at greater risk of exposure to the virus, and into area hotels.
  3. Providing safer accommodations, in a separate setting, to homeless persons identified by, or in consultation with, medical professionals, as exhibiting symptoms (fever, new onset cough, shortness of breath) that are consistent with COVID-19 infection.
  4. Standing up a new overnight shelter for single men at Warner Park to offer safer and less crowded accommodations than what is available in existing shelter facilities.

Moving families out of shelter

The Salvation Army moved all 22 families staying at its E. Washington Avenue shelter, and ten others that had been turned away from shelter for lack of space, into two area hotels – one in Madison, another nearby. The numbers have since grown to about 45 families, with 145 persons. A local restaurant group provides meals through a contract with Dane County. The Salvation Army is supporting those families with existing staff. The removal of families, and higher risk single women, from the shelter system allows the Salvation Army to offer better, and safer, accommodations for single women that continue to rely on its facility.

Protecting higher risk persons

Approximately 165 persons – mostly single adults and a few couples – who are in a higher risk category for COVID have been placed into rooms in three other hotels secured by Dane County, one of which is in the City of Madison. While most of those moved into hotels have come from shelter settings, the number includes others who cannot, or choose not to, access the shelter system but who street outreach staff, using established screening protocols, have identified as meeting the higher risk criteria.

Hotel guests receive daily meal service provided under a contract with local restaurant groups. We continue to work to build other support systems around them. Dane County has secured the services of a local support service provider, Focus Counseling, to provide on-site support services to hotel guests.

Isolating symptomatic persons

Dane County has secured separate accommodations for housing homeless persons who may have some symptoms of illness. Some have described this hotel as a COVID-19 “medical respite shelter”. Its purpose is to offer better accommodations for people who are feeling ill but have not been diagnosed with COVID-19, and to reduce the risk that they might pose to others. Local hospitals and shelter operators refer homeless persons to the respite shelter following screening and referral protocols established with guidance from local public health officials. Similarly, established screening protocols inform departures from the medical respite shelter either to another venue (if the person fits the high-risk criteria), to return to a shelter setting or, if health conditions dictate, to a medical facility

Standing up new men’s shelter

On Monday, March 30, Porchlight Inc., the men’s shelter operator, began operating out of the Warner Park Community Center. The shelter operates from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. Porchlight’s three downtown shelter locations (Grace Episcopal, St. John’s Lutheran and First United Methodist Churches) are closed. The daytime shelter, the Beacon, remains open. Porchlight staff operate the Warner Park facility, with support from Beacon staff. Madison Metro provides bus service from the Beacon to Warner Park in the evening and back to the Beacon in the morning. The shelter offers dinner and breakfast meals; lunches are provided at the Beacon. In the first weeks of operation, the shelter has served between 70 and 80 men per night, although it is prepared to take 135.

The efforts so far

The initial phases of these efforts focused primarily on meeting the logistical challenges associated with identifying and locating higher risk homeless persons, securing sufficient hotel space, arranging for transportation and meal services and moving people into hotels. As people have settled into new and unfamiliar surroundings, there has been occasion for some conflict and behavioral issues at the hotels, some of which have generated police calls. It is likely inevitable that some of those issues will persist. However, staff attention is now focused on strengthening support systems for residents. Focus Counseling promises to play a key role in this part of the effort; their presence is already having an impact. Efforts are also underway to strengthen staffing, including health monitoring services, at the medical respite shelter. While those plans are proceeding, they have been slowed by the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to ensure the safety of both staff and hotel guests. We have now secured some of the necessary PPE, and are working with Public Health to secure nursing staff but attaining adequate staffing for the respite shelter remains a work in progress.

The work to provide safe places for everyone to sleep is a team effort. Our City staff have been working closely with the County and with our non-profit partners. Much progress has been made, but we all know there is more to be done.

Together, we will get through this.

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