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Homeless shelters prepare for first winter during a pandemic


Homeless shelters are gearing up for their first full winter during a pandemic.

Laurel Burchfield, Associate Director of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, says last spring, most shelters swiftly located additional places to house homeless people so they could physically distance.

Shelter residents were frequently tested, and the most medically vulnerable were put up in hotels. Burchfield say the measures prevented big COVID-19 outbreaks among homeless people in most cities.

"We have kept our numbers down remarkably low, and moving forward, I think we're in a good place to continue keeping these individuals safe," she says.

Washtenaw County says it will open its warming centers early this year to make sure unhoused residents can maintain safe physical distancing. The county will also use its recreation center for overnuight shelter overflow as needed.

As of this week, the county's main shelter, the Delonis Center, moved from biweekly COVID testing to weekly testing for clients and staff, and existing protocols such as temperature screenings, mask wearing and social distancing are still in effect.

The last positive case at the Delonis Shelter was in March.

Dan Kelly, Executive Director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, says ongoing work in the county continues to identify additional locations for daytime and overnight shelter for when the weather is colder.

“November is the mildest month, so it offers time for us to transition and work on finding additional sites,” Kelly says. “We’ve had an impressive response from the community on identifying locations and we have been visiting multiple sites weekly to evaluate them.”

The transition may not be smooth in all areas, however.  Burchfield of the Michigan Coalition Against Homeslessness ays northern and rural shelters could have more trouble this winter. She says many relied on campsites over the summer to physically distance homeless people, but that's not an option when it's cold.

Burchfield says she's also quite worried about more people becoming homeless at the end of December.

That could happen if Congress fails to pass another CARES Act, and if the CDC does not renew its eviction ban after it expires on December 31st.

"A lot of Michiganders are just one to three paychecks away from homelessness," says Burchfield, "and a pandemic, an emergency situation like what we're facing, has taken so many more households to that brink and brought them right up to that line of evictions."

She says the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that the system in Michigan and the nation for keeping people from becoming homeless is deficient, and there needs to be more widespread rental support and more low-income and affordable housing units.

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Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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