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Winter weather makes it hard for homeless shelters to take people in, prevent COVID-19

Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio

antonio valenti is a client at the delonis center in ann arbor
Credit Courtesy Antonio Valenti
Antonio Valenti is a client at the Delonis Center in Ann Arbor.

Antonio Valenti was born and raised in Detroit, but had been living and working Colorado for the past few years. As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, he wanted to be closer to his family, especially his sons. But Valenti couldn't work: he suffers from a degenerative condition called spinal stenosis.

"It's a form of spine disease that attacks your bones and just basically feels like it's breaking my back," Valenti says of the pain.

This means frequent doctors visits, and what Valenti describes as countless MRIs. Valenti says he was definitely aware of the risk that frequent doctors office visits meant in terms of potential exposure to COVID-19.

"It's pretty scary, I mean, it's real. It's kind of like a sci-fi movie. You can't wake up from it. You know, it's there, and it's a serious, deadly virus. And so it's always in the back of your mind."

When Valenti first got to Michigan, he had to sleep in his car. At this point, he had to make a difficult decision.

"No one wants to go to a homeless shelter, no one wants to ask for help or for shelter or things like that. But when you go through homelessness, you have to. You have to basically swallow your pride and say, 'I need to do this because I don't want to be sleeping on the streets or sleeping in my car or anything like that.'"

Valenti says there was no question in his mind that the Delonis Center, a shelter in Ann Arbor, was the place best equipped to help him manage his healthcare.

"No one wants to go to a homeless shelter, no one wants to ask for help or for shelter or things like that. But when you go through homelessness, you have to."

But the Delonis Center doesn't feel like it's equipped to handle December. They're still looking for overflow shelter to accommodate more people, and they need day shelter as well. Because common community spaces like libraries and restaurants are closed, more people get left out in the cold.

The Delonis Center is one of many shelters around the state that's trying to figure out winter in a pandemic. Homeless shelters are used to high demand when the weather gets cold. But this winter will be even more challenging because many shelters don't have the space to accommodate more people with enough distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some are spending more on motel vouchers. And shelters that typically rely on churches and temples to help with overflow are finding fewer of those places willing to take people in.

Sarah Paspal-Jasinski is the director of development for the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County. She says they're trying to keep clients physically distant to prevent the spread of COVID-19. That means fewer people in the building.

"Because of COVID, we had to reduce the capacity in our building to 70, we can normally help about 150 people in our building by putting cots and blankets on he cafeteria and service center floors just to bring people out of the cold. Well, of course, we can't do that now."

Washtenaw County is typically able to provide shelter with the help of more than 20 faith partners around the county. These are churches, temples, and mosques that provide overnight housing and daytime warming spaces. But this year, they only have five of those partners willing to help. Each will host 25 clients for one month.

Ryan Boes is the pator of teaching and worship at Ann Arbor Christian Reformed Church. That's one of the partners that's agreed to continue working with the Delonis Center to provide shelter. They hosted 25 clients for the month of November.

Boes says it was easy to say yes because of community buy-in: Parishioners were more than willing to volunteer their time and resources.

"In knowing the privilege and being able to identify what we have, it was really easy for us to say we can give out of teh abundance that we have. Right? The pandemic isn't hitting us as hard as other demographics within our community. And so how do we make sure that those other demographics are taken care of?"

"The pandemic isn't hitting us as hard as other demographics within our community. And so how do we make sure that those other demographics are taken care of?"

Boes says the set-up is pretty good for the Delonis Center clients. They got their own wing, one the church would usually use for religious education. Religious education isn't happening, and in-person worship is limited, so the clients got their own space and privacy. The Delonis Center also provided staff to help.

Since the first case in Michigan in March, the Delonis Center has taken a lot of additional safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the shelter. Clients, staff, and volunteers are required to wear masks or face coverings, and clients get a COVID-19 test every week. Anyone new coming into the building also gets a test.

Paspal-Jasinski says the measures have been effective in preventing any outbreaks in the shelters.

"We've helped over 600 people since March. So it's incredible how many people have come in and out of our building, and we've only had two positive cases."

She says with this track record, it's frustrating that community organizations and businesses aren't willing to even have a conversation about using unused space for overflow shelter during the winter.

Antonio Valenti—the Delonis Center client—says the tests are reassuring for clients as well: he's had multiple family members struggle with the virus, and says a lot of the other clients also know people who've had it.

"They try to get the test results in as quickly as possible. Sometimes they have a little bit of difficulty, but they try their best to get it in as quickly as possible because the clients really want to know, are they at risk, is there any type of outbreak?"

He adds, "When you're constantly getting these negative results, it helps to kind of put your at ease a little bit."

The shelter moved Valenti to a hotel about a month ago, to make room for more people in the winter months. He's also getting a test every week.

"They're doing what they need to do to keep the public safe. And that includes us. You know, anybody could be in this situation."

Caroline is a third year history major at the University of Michigan. She also works at The Michigan Daily, where she has been a copy editor and an opinion columnist. When she’s not at work, you can find her down at Argo Pond as a coxswain for the Michigan men’s rowing team. Caroline loves swimming, going for walks, being outdoors, cooking, trivia, and spending time with her two-year-old cat, Pepper.
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