How Will COVID-19 Affect Austinites Without Housing?

For shelters, shutting down is "beyond the worst-case scenario"

Front Steps' Greg McCormack, briefing reporters last fall. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

As Austin and Travis County residents begin to grapple with a new reality that includes proactive avoidance of public spaces and self-quarantine at home, what can be done for our neighbors who live in public spaces because they have no homes to go to?

That’s the question Austin’s homeless shelter operators may face in coming weeks as COVID-19 spreads through the city, forcing establishments to send workers home and close their doors to slow down community transmission of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease. For a shelter, that means not being able to offer critical services that can help clients out of homelessness, or even the very mission it was designed to carry out.

"We’re really, a lot of times, the last vestige for someone who has no where else to go,” Greg McCormack, executive director of Front Steps, the nonprofit that operates the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, told the Chronicle. “The possibility of closing down is beyond the worst-case scenario for us, but we have to juggle that with our staff and client safety."

Balancing the safety of staff, who work closely – emotionally and physically – with the clients they serve, will be a difficult task. Unlike some jobs, there's really no way to do the work virtually. The case management services that social workers at shelters provide depend on face-to-face interaction that builds trust with clients who may be skeptical of institutional help that has failed them in the past.

Clearly, social workers need to stay home when they are sick just like the rest of us. (Front Steps intends to cover the cost of sick time taken by employees who do not have enough accrued, but need to stay home to recover.) Staff at the ARCH are taking other steps to prevent spreading the virus. Anyone coming into the downtown shelter – staff, guest, or client – is. required to use the hand sanitizer stationed at the door. Chairs in the shelter’s day resource center now have about four feet of space between them to help keep people distanced. Custodial staff are increasing the frequency of cleaning services throughout the facility.

The ARCH is in need of hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, and face masks for staff use and is accepting donations of these items from the community; deliveries from online orders are preferred, but in-person drop-offs will be accepted for the time being. For more information, visit www.frontsteps.org.

The Salvation Army’s three Austin shelters – the downtown facility on Red River, the Women and Children’s Shelter, and the recently opened Rathgeber Center – are taking similar measures. Local spokesperson Corey Leith said, “the safety of our clients and staff has always been one of our top priorities, so we feel like we’ve been prepared for the virus all along.” Additional messaging reminding staff and clients of good hygiene practices has also been posted at each shelter.

Shelters are designed to house people densely, which allows facilities to serve more people most of the time but can be a problem when social distancing is required. Leith and McCormack agree on the need to keep lines of communication open – with each other and with state, local, and federal health officials. The experts at Austin Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control will help guide shelters on how to best protect staff and clients.

Leith said the Salvation Army, like Front Steps and every other shelter in town, would be reluctant to close its doors to people who rely on it. “We are not in any danger of shutting down programs or services at this time," he said. “We have to provide a service to our community, which is what we all signed up to do."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Homelessness, COVID-19, coronavirus, Greg McCormack, Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, ARCH, Front Steps, Corey Leith, Salvation Army

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