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Kentucky homeless shelters on the brink: 'We need help now' or COVID-19 will spread

Lexington Herald-Leader logo Lexington Herald-Leader 4/4/2020 By Beth Musgrave, Lexington Herald-Leader

Last week, Ginny Ramsey’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing.

Could the Catholic Action Center, a privately-funded Lexington homeless shelter, take someone who was discharged from a hospital?

A shelter in a surrounding county was no longer taking new clients, was there room at the Lexington shelter?

“I have to say no,” said Ramsey, the director of the Catholic Action Center. “It breaks my heart. We usually always try.”

But to protect the 134 homeless housed at the Catholic Action Center during the novel coronavirus pandemic, Ramsey can’t open her doors to new clients.

Doing so could lead to the spread of the respiratory illness that, as of Friday, has killed more than 30 people in Kentucky and infected at least 800.

The Catholic Action Center is not alone. Many of the 100 homeless shelters across the state have had to close their doors to new clients as they struggle to keep a vulnerable homeless population safe and healthy on shoestring budgets.

And now that homeless shelter system is strained to its breaking point, homeless providers and advocates say.

“The shelters in Kentucky were never well-funded to begin with,” said Adrienne Bush, the executive director of the Kentucky Homeless and Housing Coalition, a statewide network of homeless providers and affordable housing advocates.

“Shelters were already operating on razor-thin margins,” Bush said. “ Now with the demand for homeless services and the need to isolate people, we don’t have the facilities or staffing to handle this during a pandemic.”

Some smaller, privately-run homeless shelters in rural areas have shut down completely, Bush and other homeless providers say.

Others are in financially precarious positions. Many have had to find additional space to isolate those most at risk for severe complications from the coronavirus. But extra space means more staffing and more overhead costs.

If those homeless shelters don’t spend that money, loss of life could result. Many of the state’s more than 4,000 homeless people are in poor health and at risk for contracting the disease.

“If we had an outbreak in the homeless community, it would overwhelm the healthcare system,” said Bush. “It will be devastating.”

There have been no confirmed positive COVID-19 cases in a Kentucky homeless shelter, Bush said. But there have been outbreaks in other homeless populations, including the one in New York City.

In a letter to Gov. Andy Beshear dated Thursday, Bush and more than a dozen homeless and housing advocates asked that some of the federal coronavirus relief money destined for Kentucky be set aside immediately to go to the state’s homeless shelters.

“The bottom line is that our shelter providers need approximately $24 million to in addition to what they receive in existing federal funding and equipment to protect our homeless neighbors and by extension, the public at large,” the letter said.

In addition to funding, the letter also advocated the following.

Kentucky Emergency Management list shelter staff and homeless outreach personnel as first responders with access to personal protection equipment.

Testing for COVID-19 in homeless shelters should be a priority like it is for other congregate settings, such as nursing homes, jails and prisons.

A statewide ban on dismantling homeless encampments until the pandemic is over.

“We need help now,” Bush said.

Polly Ruddick, the executive director of Lexington’s Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention, agreed.

Before the outbreak, Ruddick and Lexington’s homeless providers implemented a plan that includes a separate quarantine facility for any homeless person that tests positive and daily temperature checks of all shelter staff and clients.

But a local plan can only go so far.

“Lexington’s homeless system providers have done an exceptional job over the last three weeks in the most demanding of circumstances, going above and beyond to comply, as much as possible, with CDC recommendations and Gov. Beshear’s executive orders,” Ruddick said. “However, we have reached critical mass and are asking for a state-level response. We are asking for funding to secure additional sites for those unsheltered, and access to crucial personal protective equipment for staff on the front lines.

Acting Cabinet for Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander said during a March 27 press conference that Beshear had issued an order stopping evictions statewide, stemming the number of people entering homelessness. The state has also asked state-run institutions, including state mental institutions, not to discharge people unless they have a place to stay.

But Friedlander was silent on whether there would be more funding for homeless shelters or if the state could provide additional resources, including buildings or support staff for additional housing for the homeless not being served by the current homeless system.

Shelters scramble for space, money during pandemic

Darlene Thomas, executive director of Greenhouse 17, a Lexington-based domestic violence shelter that serves 17 counties, can’t turn victims of domestic violence away. The Greenhouse 17 shelter is at capacity — about 40 people, including 20 children.

Greenhouse is paying for hotel rooms for people who need to leave an abusive relationship immediately. For those with jobs but no savings, Greenhouse helps pay for a deposit and first month’s rent.

Those solutions keep the shelter population down, remove people from dangerous situations and allow families to remain intact.

But it’s expensive.

“I can do that now,” Thomas said. “But I don’t have the cash flow to do it for two or three months.”

The Catholic Action Center was able to move 47 at-risk clients — those over the age of 60 with underlying health conditions — to a recently purchased retreat center on Herrington Lake. That retreat center was supposed to become a new drug treatment center. For now, those plans are on hold.

“We have several people who are cancer patients. We have one who has end-stage pancreatic cancer,” Ramsey said. They would not survive if they were infected with the coronavirus, she said.

Staffing and supplying that second location for those 47 people are very, very costly, Ramsey said.

“But we have to do it,” she said.

Fortunately, Lundy’s Catering has provided 600 meals a day to Catholic Action Center clients at no cost at both its Lexington and Herrington Lake locations. Other groups have stepped in to provide other snacks, Ramsey said.

“We have seen so many positive things, and a lot of good come out of this,” Ramsey said. “But we don’t have the space to serve everybody. The government needs to step in.”

Gyms, convention centers turn into shelters

Many nonprofit homeless providers have turned to their communities for unique solutions to house the homeless during the pandemic.

In Northern Kentucky, the Northern Kentucky Convention Center opened its doors to 66 homeless people in the Covington area. A combination of nonprofits, local emergency management, a local restaurant and local government officials helped make the pop-up shelter happen in less than eight hours on a Saturday in mid- March.

Kim Webb, executive director of the Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky, spearheaded efforts to start the pop-up shelter.

The Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky normally only operates during the cold weather months. Its building is too small to house people and follow social distancing guidelines, she said.

Webb saw stories about a town in Oregon that had converted its convention center into a homeless shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic and turned to local leaders and fellow nonprofits for help.

No one said no, Webb said.

But the solution is only temporary, she said. The people housed in the convention center have to move out by Saturday. WCPO in Cincinnati reported Friday that organizers are trying to find hotels for the people still there.

Kenton, Boone and Campbell counties have only a handful of homeless providers. All of the providers are in Kenton County.

“There were already too few beds,” Webb said. “I’m 90 percent privately funded. We are taking on costs that we don’t even know how we are going to pay for. . . . We do it because it’s the right thing to do..”

Webb said she and other providers are worried that the lack of available beds means lots of homeless people in Northern Kentucky and across the state are sleeping outside. That may allow for social distancing, but it’s less than ideal during a pandemic when good hygiene is key to stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“They don’t have access to showers, restrooms and can’t wash their hands,” Webb said.

Earlier this week between 40 and 50 men from Lexington’s Hope Center moved into a practice gym on the University of Transylvania’s campus in Lexington. The Hope Center, which houses more than 650 people in its emergency shelter and other programs, needed the additional space because its current emergency shelter on Loudon Avenue was too crowded to allow for social distancing.

Janice James, interim executive director of Hope Center, said Transy is not charging the shelter for use of the space.

“They have been longtime partners and have been very generous,” James said.

The Hope Center has incurred lots of additional costs over the past month. It has two additional sleeper units outside of its Loudon Avenue shelter. It is also spending $17,000 a month on a shower truck to augment its bathroom facilities. All three of those mobile units use generators. The cost for diesel fuel for those three generators is $6,000 a month.

“Anytime you add additional space, you have to hire more staff,” James said. “That’s generally the biggest cost driver.”

James and other shelter providers said as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress last week, there is money for homeless shelters. But that money will likely not be available for months.

James said they have enough in reserves to pay their bills. For now.

“We thought that we would eventually be reimbursed.,” James said. “But now we are hearing that money not be available until June.”

Hope Center is also asking the community for tents, sleeping bags, pillows, blankets and yoga mats in case it needs to move some people outside. It also needs gas cards for diesel fuel, snack foods, flip-flops or shower shoes, masks and gloves.

Serving hundreds in tight spaces without protection

There is another critical need for homeless providers — personal protection equipment.

“Our shelter and housing providers are on the front lines as well as traditional first responders, and as such, need whatever personal protective equipment can be procured at this point,” said the letter Bush and others sent to Beshear on Thursday.

Thomas said the only masks she has found for Greenhouse 17 staff and clients if COVID-19 cases occur are dust control masks at a local hardware store. If someone tests positive at Greenhouse 17, there is no way to protect her clients and current staff.

“None of us have any personal protective equipment,” Thomas said of the shelter community. “We aren’t set up like a medical facility.”

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©2020 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)

Visit the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.) at www.kentucky.com

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