How Austin homeless shelters are keeping people safe during coronavirus outbreak


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Leaders at several Austin shelters are adjusting operations to ensure people experiencing homelessness are protected from the new coronavirus.

Living in close quarters, individuals and families staying at shelters are potentially more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the population at large. “A lot of them are older, have compromised immune systems,” said Greg McCormack, executive director of Front Steps, the group that runs the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). “If they do get it, it could hit them pretty hard.”

Bunks at the ARCH are close together, but staff members are doing what they can to provide distance between clients. (KXAN Photo)

New guidelines to practice social distancing pose challenges for shelters like the ARCH, where clients stay on bunk beds with little space between them. “What we are doing is making sure people are sleeping head-to-toe,” McCormack said, so people aren’t face-to-face on adjacent bunks.

When they’re not full, he added, they’re able to space people out strategically on bunks to provide more separation. Staff members can also arrange additional mats on the first floor in a way that maximizes distance between clients.

The shelter is increasing its use of hand sanitizer, setting up a station at the entrance for everyone to use, and disinfecting common areas like counters 3-3 times a day, McCormack said. Front Steps also removed half the chairs from shared spaces, like the laundry facility, to increase distance between folks.

“Things we’ve been doing are things that everybody’s doing,” he said.

Calming fear

The Salvation Army runs three shelters in Austin, offering a safe place to around 300 people a night, said area commander Maj. Lewis Reckline.

The group gives out hand sanitizer when it’s available. “We’re out of that now,” he said, “so we do struggle with that point.”

Reckline said they’re distancing clients as much as possible in the downtown shelter for individuals, and the new Rathgeber Center, a family shelter in east Austin, provides individual rooms that are naturally conducive to social distancing.

The Rathgeber Center, Austin’s newest shelter, opened last month in east Austin to serve families experiencing homelessness. (KXAN Photo)

If someone were to become infected with the coronavirus, Reckline said, that person would be taken to an appropriate healthcare facility. The Salvation Army is identifying spaces in its shelters that would serve as isolation rooms for anyone who might have come into contact with the patient.

But perhaps the most important defense at this point is education. “That calms fears down, too,” Reckline said, “because just because someone sneezes doesn’t necessarily mean that they have this.”

The ARCH, meanwhile, has a health clinic on the first floor of the shelter. Staff members know to ask clients how they’re feeling when they come in, McCormack said, and “if someone tells us, ‘I’m not feeling well, I think I may have a little fever,’ we’re going to say, ‘Would you like us to check you?'”

The shelter is not mandating that anyone gets their temperature checked when they enter, McCormack said, but if they receive guidance from health professionals that the measure is necessary, they’ll work to implement it.

“We really want to try and do everything that we can to keep this building and this shelter as safe as possible for the individuals that we’re working with and that are coming in and doing the work,” he said.

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