A Marathon and a Sprint

Homelessness nonprofits prepare for COVID-19

We’ve heard the recommendations dozens of times: Wash your hands with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds; social distance at least six feet from other people; work from home if you can; if you feel sick, stay home.

Following these recommendations will slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus — but for the more than 2,000 unhoused people living in Lane County right now, it’s nearly impossible to do something as simple as wash hands.

So nonprofits in Eugene who serve this vulnerable population are adapting how they operate as quickly as they can to protect their employees and volunteers and to continue to help their clients.


Sue Sierralupe

Photo by Todd Cooper

Sue Sierralupe, clinic director of Occupy Medical, an all-volunteer operation offering free medical care, says that unhoused people are the vulnerable population. “The unhoused already have comorbidities just by the fact that they are unhoused,” she says.

Unhoused people are as diverse as people with homes, ShelterCare CEO Michelle Hankes says, and everyone’s risk is a little different.

“If they’re unhoused completely, well, where are you going to wash your hands? Where are you going to go for safety? Do they even have knowledge about what’s going on? Because they may not have access to the internet, which the rest of us are so dependent upon,” she says.

And as places close, it becomes a lot harder for unhoused people to need basic needs, like washing their hands or taking a shower, says Tim Black, CAHOOTS crisis coordinator at White Bird.

Sierralupe says unhoused people often don’t have a safe place to stay, and even if they do get into a shelter for the night, the beds are usually close together. “The social distancing thing is just not going to happen,” she says.

Homelessness nonprofits are adjusting the way they operate, but it’s an evolving process.

Terry McDonald is the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, which operates the Egan Warming Center and Dusk to Dawn Shelter among other homelessness services in Eugene. He says the first line of defense has been to “clean, clean, clean.” SVDP employees and volunteers clean the day services programs, like the Lindholm Center and First Place Family Center, every 15 minutes.

SVDP, in conjunction with Lane County, has also modified the Dusk to Dawn program to be open 24 hours, to keep people in place, McDonald says. “We’re trying to keep ahead of it as much as we can,” McDonald says, “with the understanding that at some point we will fail.”

ShelterCare, which provides unhoused people with housing and support services like behavioral health services, has been making stair-stepped plans for each program,, Hankes says.  “We’re now nearing those top steps to say what are those essential programs to make sure people are safe? What do we not need to be doing? What’s, what’s nice to do? And what do we have to do?”

ShelterCare plans to stagger staff to make sure essential tasks like payroll, rent checks for clients and medication handouts are still completed and added two weeks of emergency medical leave for employees. Staff is currently working remotely, according to the ShelterCare website, but phone lines remain open.

The Eugene Mission, a Christian nonprofit that provides emergency shelter, food and residential programs to unhoused people, started by adding portable handwashing and hand sanitizer stations and rearranged their dormitory-style shelters so beds are as far apart as possible, Executive Director Sheryl Balthrop says.

The Mission further restructured by making in-house services available only for residential clients and taking its food services mobile, so it can keep residential clients safe and meet other clients where they’re based.

Everyone who comes to Occupy Medical will have their temperature taken and be asked a short questionnaire about risk factors like travel and whether they have a cough, Sierralupe says, before being able to use the medical and hospitality suites.

“We’re also talking about mobilizing again,” Sierralupe says. Occupy Medical operated out of buses and tents before switching to a permanent medical clinic in 2016.

White Bird and CAHOOTS, which offer a variety of services including counseling, medical care and crisis response, are doing their best to maintain as many of their services as possible, Black says. The dental clinic has cut back to only emergency services, and White Bird is working with the county and other providers to continue to the medical clinic, though its services will also be cut back.

It is still offering remote behavioral health services, Black says. “We’re trying to, really, if folks have the resources to meet with us remotely, we’re still engaging in ongoing therapy.”

He adds, “CAHOOTS is really gearing up to continue to provide high level services we can, you know, but that’s all really dependent on the amount of supplies that we have.”

White Bird will receive $60,710 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as part of the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law March 6. Lane County will also receive $77,969.

The nonprofits are also working with the city and county to coordinate their efforts. “We are doing several things geared toward protecting the unhoused community as part of our response,” Lane County spokesperson Devon Ashbridge says. “We are working closely with many of our community partners on this issue, including the city of Eugene, city of Springfield, St. Vincent de Paul and White Bird.”

Among these responses are partnering with Eugene and Springfield in adding more than 45 sanitation stations around the metropolitan area, Ashbridge says. She says they are making weekly calls with these service providers to identify new strategies, assess what’s working and what is needed.

The public handwashing stations have been installed all over the Eugene-Springfield area, with concentrations in downtown Eugene and Springfield. An interactive map of where the stations are located can be found on the city of Eugene’s website.

Lane County has also partnered with SVDP and White Bird to operate two temporary respite sites for unhoused people, according to a Lane County press release. Services will include places to sleep, eat, take a shower and get medical screenings. The city of Eugene is doing outreach to make sure people know about the sites; one is at the Lane County Fairgrounds in Eugene and opens March 26, and the other at the Memorial Building in Springfield, which will open Friday, March 27.

The nonprofits are all running out of supplies, and monetary donations as well as medical and sanitation supplies are needed. “Area services are being impacted the same way that individuals are,” Black says. “At that point we’re competing with folks who are stockpiling for materials that are really needed to really support and serve the community.”

On a larger scale, Sierralupe says we need universal health care and universal income, the latter of which has been proposed by the U.S. Department of Treasury as an emergency measure but has not been passed by Congress as of press time, nor is it likely to be.

Sierralupe also says social distancing does not mean social isolation. “Now is the time to be more socially connected. That’s not only survival, but that that’s how you excel as a culture.”

Public handwashing stations