Freezing temperatures, COVID-19 concerns present challenges for shelters

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Thursday, November 19, 2020
Dropping temperatures, COVID-19 pandemic present challenges for shelters
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The Durham Rescue mission is handling a COVID-19 outbreak even as temperatures drop and the need to shelter the homeless increases.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- There have been 12 COVID-19 cases at the Durham Rescue Mission since Friday as testing continues at one of the area's largest shelters.

"In this time of an outbreak, and therefore we are not taking new clients right now," said Durham Rescue Mission COO Rob Tart.

One of those cases required hospitalization, though that client has since returned. People who have tested positive have separate housing, while there is also segregated dormitory space for close contacts. Tart added that those close contacts have tested negative.

"We think we've got it contained, we think that we've got it all. But we're still testing everyone else trying to make sure that everything else. We're working very hard," Tart said.

Though the weather has been fairly mild throughout the fall, temperatures are set to drop into the 20s Wednesday night.

"What's the greater risk? Is the greater risk possible outbreak and infection or is it frostbite and other things that can come from in exposure to cold weather like that? We're not going to let anybody freeze if we can help it. And we're not going to let anybody go hungry," Tart said.

Thus far, the shelter has not activated its Operation Warm Shelter protocols, but is taking steps to try to keep clients safe.

"We're going to take our program space and turn it into emergency shelter space. And we're going to do our best to make sure no one goes exposed in the winter this year," Tart said.

He said they have bought hand sanitizer and dispensers as well as more sleeping mats, to ensure they can be sanitized after each use. The pandemic has affected their business operations, leading to the closure of one of their thrift stores, which is making a dent in their financial situation. The shelter is in need of any cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer donations.

"There's a lot of underlying health problems that are just on the edge here. So we've got a lot of work to do," Tart said.


In Wake County, county-run facilities such as the South Wilmington Street Center has reduced their capacity from 234 people to 160.

Before the pandemic, there would have been teams of volunteers on Triangle streets Wednesday afternoon warning people who don't have a home that it might be too dangerously cold to sleep on the streets tonight. COVID has changed all that, but the concerns are still there.

In Wake County, county-run facilities such as the South Wilmington Street Center has reduced their capacity from 234 people to 160.

"(The shelter) admits new guests weekly into a quarantined area of the facility, administers COVID-19 tests and provides services from this area. Bed configuration allows adequate social distancing and safety for everyone," said county spokesperson Leah Holdren.

Furthermore, the county's housing department is working with other shelters to allow proper social distancing, such as creating the Hotels to Housing program, which allows vulnerable residents who meet criteria to stay at hotels "until stable housing can be established."

"We are just trying to give back to the community," said Allen Winston, a 23-year old southeast Raleigh native working to help fill the need gap created by COVID-19. "Because a lot of people can't get the help that they need."

Winston and his friend created Bigger than Colors. They've been feeding hungry people, organizing community clean-ups and now on the coldest night of the season - they're prepping for a blanket give-a-way this weekend. They've collected 230 blankets from local donors to give to families in need.

"Some people don't have phones to call social service. So we're just trying to be that stepping stone that you can get a hot meal, a box of food and a blanket to take care of you and your family," Winston said.

COVID-19 had already created huge obstacles to the outreach at Durham Rescue Mission. Its founder and CEO Dr. Ernie Mills says the cold weather and the coronavirus adds a whole new set.

"This is a very unusual time for us at the mission. We've never experienced things like this," Mills said.

COVID-19 concerns have forced Mills and his team at DRM to put a pause on its Operation: Warm Shelter. It's when DRM teams head out ahead of cold nights looking under bridges, near highways and encampments -- inviting anyone to sleep safely at the mission. But with COVD-19, the operation is just too risky.

"We're in the process now of rearranging our beds and developing social distancing that's going to be needed for operation warm shelter. And we are not quite there yet. But we're getting close. And I think we'll be there pretty soon," Mills said.

Our full extended interview with Dr. Mills is streaming right now on the ABC11 North Carolina App.

Meanwhile, Allen Winston and Bigger than Colors is set for their blanket and food give-a-way. The event is scheduled for this Saturday at 3:00 p.m. at Bragg Street Park at 1116 South Person Street.