Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kokomo Rescue Mission’s three shelters already were normally full. Once social distancing guidelines went into play, things got tougher for those helping provide shelter for the area’s homeless population.
Now, an isolation center for the homeless that’s set to open in Howard County may help. Last week, Howard County announced it would receive $380,000 in grant funding from the Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) to help establish an isolation center for homeless individuals who were awaiting test results for COVID-19 or must be quarantined.
Once up and running, the isolation center should alleviate some of the issues the pandemic created for local shelters, chiefly reductions in capacity created by social distancing guidelines and isolation areas that were erected in existing shelters.
When the pandemic hit Howard County, Kokomo Rescue Mission Executive Director Van Taylor said the three shelters operated by the nonprofit weren’t exempt from the impact. According to Taylor, one client housed within one of his organization’s facilities had tested positive for the virus. Three more have had to be tested, but the results showed they hadn’t contracted COVID-19. Four others had to be quarantined for 14 days at a doctor’s behest, in addition to those who were awaiting test results.
“There’s no good time to experience homelessness, but when you put it in terms of living in a community and in a shelter and in a dormitory with bunk beds … depending upon the size of the dormitory, there may be 20 people you don’t know,” said Taylor. “You don’t know where they came from. You don’t know their health. It’s very scary. There’s a lot of apprehension and a lot of tension. That makes it difficult for folks to go through this with people you don’t know and strangers. It’s hard enough to go through this pandemic with your family, but now you’re asking someone to go through it in a community that you just met everybody. So it’s been really hard on the homeless community.”
Quarantining at the shelters, however, proved problematic. Inherently, the shelters function something like dormitories with multiple individuals residing in single rooms. But in order to quarantine, the capacities of such areas had to be reduced. As a result, Taylor said one shelter’s capacity dropped by about 33 percent, with the other two requiring a drop of 20 percent in capacity to accommodate quarantines.
“It’s huge. We were never designed to isolate residents. Our bathroom, our showers, all those things were not configured as a medical isolation unit … It was difficult. It wasn’t always meeting the highest standard of the codes. But we had little alternative other than to ask them to walk out on the street, and we weren’t going to do that,” said Taylor.
The KRM executive director said the isolation center should alleviate part of the problem for the local shelters.
When it’s up and running at 625 N. Union St., the isolation center will be able to accommodate 50 homeless individuals who were referred by area medical staff and shelter managers. It will serve Howard, Tipton, Miami, Cass, and Wabash counties and is projected to open on May 15, if not sooner. It will be operated by Howard County government in partnership with Coordinated Assistance Ministries and Community Howard Regional Health.
“I would like to thank FSSA for this grant. The isolation center is an important piece of our overall management plan for this virus. We are grateful to be in a position to protect a vulnerable population within our community,” said Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman. “Once again, great organizations in our community have come together to find great solutions which keeps us on the forefront of this fight against the virus.”
At the isolation center, KRM will provide lunch and dinner, while breakfast will be prepared at the facility.
But, life will not return to normalcy at KRM’s three shelters. Taylor said the facilities’ capacities still will not be at 100 percent, as social distancing guidelines will remain in effect. CDC guidelines as well as testing and screening will continue at the shelters also.
The capacity reductions, according to Taylor, haven’t resulted in the ousting of individuals from the shelters. Rather, he said some clients left on their own due to displeasure with the precautions or general unease about living in a group setting as the pandemic continued. Others, he said, utilized their savings to strike out on their own.
“We have almost 30 percent or more, depending upon the season, with jobs,” said Taylor. “So, they had been saving some money, and they just decided to take that money. And maybe they got a stimulus check, and they left to maybe go on their own. So that’s not all negative. They found the resources to maybe go on their own. Maybe this pushed their timeline because they wanted to save. We have financial classes, and we encourage saving. But maybe they decided, ‘I have enough to make one month’s rent, and I’m going.’ We didn’t ask anybody to leave, but people self-selected themselves to say, ‘This is more than I want.’”
During the pandemic, KRM will continue to provide other services to the community as well. Grocery sack assistance will continue to be offered on Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., and grab and go meals are continuing twice a day from 12 p.m. to 12:30 and from 4:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
(Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the rescue mission's capacity was reduced by 70 percent. The article has been updated to include the correct percentage of approximately 25 percent.)