Overcoming COVID-Positive Cases While Maintaining the Same Level of Care to Those in Need
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges for nonprofits, especially organizations that work directly with vulnerable populations, like Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, the oldest and largest homeless shelter in Philadelphia. While testing and vaccinations have helped slow the spread of COVID-19, the risk for organizations like ours is still high.
Through operational and organizational solutions, short-term overnight shelters can continue to provide the best care for the communities they serve while maintaining a healthy environment that limits exposure and risk. At my nonprofit, these solutions were put to use in January, when 27 out of the month’s 31 nights constituted a “Code Blue” emergency.
In Philadelphia, a “Code Blue” is called when temperatures fall below freezing, and sleeping on the streets can be life-threatening. Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission was the first organization to accept COVID-positive men living on the streets during that brutally cold period. Utilizing a multipurpose room, which normally provides up to 40 beds during “Code Blue”, it was offered to the City’s Office of Homeless Services as a quarantine and isolation space until the city’s hotel sites could admit them. By the end of January, we had served 110 men with COVID-19 who were in need of a safe place to isolate and recover. Also, 11 staff themselves during the same month were positive for COVID-19.
One challenge for us that tested the resolve of sheltering men was deciding what was more dangerous: COVID-19 itself as a disease, or extreme winter temperatures that lead to someone freezing to death. Immediately, through discussions with other providers and the City’s Office of Homeless Services, we determined that winter posed a greater risk of health and safety. Therefore, COVID-19 restrictions and its related concerns were temporarily suspended during January 2022 in order to simply get men off of the streets and into the shelter.
Consequently, here are four ways that housing providers, particularly those with congregant settings, and other direct service nonprofits can keep guests safe while continuing to care for their basic needs:
- Distancing and quarantine. Shelter beds are spaced more than 6-feet apart for proper distancing during the night. Additionally, commercial bed barriers consisting of industrial plastic sheets are installed between each bed. However, additional services, such as giving out meals for guests in a congregate setting, are a larger obstacle to overcome. Creating comfortable spaces where those who have tested positive can recover in quarantine can prevent further spread.
- Proper sanitation. Equip dormitories and dining areas for guests with masks and hand sanitizer. Invest in a sanitation fogger that is used to clean the building in order to better protect the people within it, and look at ways to improve air filtration. Stagger flow of people throughout the building during times when crowding and lines can occur; for instance, shower times and mealtimes were extended in order to reduce the number of men in one room and space at one time.
- Testing and vaccine clinics. Ensure every guest is tested frequently in order to move positive individuals away from others. Be assertive and proactive when any symptoms are observed for all persons to isolate them from others. Work with a local hospital or health department to host a vaccine clinic for guests.
- Hire quality and ‘called’ staff. Ensure that staff truly feel “called” to work with the homeless. Equip them with resources and support for mental health and plenty of time off from work demands. At the onset, quality staff will be the heroes who care for the basic needs of shelter guests.
COVID-19 has not only impacted shelters through the spread of the virus but also in resources that they receive to operate. Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission has found food donations have dropped by 80% and volunteering opportunities have decreased significantly to reduce the spread of the virus. As a result of rising food costs, we have experienced a 300% increase in the overall costs of our meal program. Additional costs to clean and sanitize frequently are also a strain on our funding.
Prior to COVID-19, the cost of housing and food care for an individual for one day was approximately $24.50. It has since increased to $36.75 for a single day of care for that same individual. An average cash budget for purchased food was only $85,000 because of the significant food donations from local restaurants, universities and businesses. However, after only seven months during this current fiscal year, purchased food has cost the organization over $217,000 to date.
Every shelter provider works courageously and consistently to safely keep their doors open while supplying vaccinations, testing, food, clothing and shelter. Throughout this entire pandemic, the staff at Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission have fearlessly and selflessly sacrificed in order to deliver quality care to those who have no other place to sleep or to eat. Investing in staff retention strategies, such as adding more benefits and increasing vacations, also helps nonprofit organizations to meet the challenges of such times.
With these precautions and proactive solutions, the important work of nonprofits like Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission can continue with everyone’s safety in mind, while continuing to treat those we serve with dignity and respect.
With decades of transformational service and leadership experience at premier nonprofit organizations and ministries, Jeremy Montgomery journey in ministry began in high school when God placed it on his heart to tend to those in need living in our urban centers. Jeremy attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where received his Masters of Arts in urban ministry. After a decade of ministry experience, he continued his educational studies at Eastern University to receive his MBA in management.
Jeremy has found a true calling in steering the establishment of unparalleled levels of service for the homeless population of Philadelphia. Arriving at Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission as CEO and president in November 2018 after eight years with Habitat for Humanity, he transitioned a New Jersey Habitat affiliate from all-volunteer to staff-driven and grew its operating budget from $175,000 to $3.1 million.
Growing up with his parents and with more than 100 foster brothers and sisters, Jeremy knows firsthand the importance of ensuring everyone has access to the full spectrum of resources required to physically and spiritually thrive, especially having a safe, caring place to live.