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Separating bunks and no hugs for kids: coronavirus and Michigan’s homeless

GRAND RAPIDS—On a given night, some 400 homeless men, women and children pack into Mel Trotter Ministries near downtown Grand Rapids.

That includes more than a hundred men housed in a large second-floor room, filled with row after row of bunk beds. It’s an older population that typically includes a portion who are mentally ill, disabled or have a multitude of underlying chronic health conditions.

During the day, more than 100 residents mingle in the shelter’s day center.

By any definition, that’s pretty much the opposite of the “social distancing” that public health experts advise as the spread of the coronavirus has zoomed into the hundreds of cases across Michigan this week.

“Of course, I am concerned about any outbreak that could happen,” Dennis Van Kampen, chief executive officer of Mel Trotter, told Bridge Magazine.

But he said closing the shelter is simply not an option. It would violate what this Christian-based nonprofit organization is called by faith to do.

“We can’t do that,” Van Kampen said. “If we do, who would take care of the homeless people in our community?”

It’s a daily challenge to Michigan shelters that house about 8,000 homeless people on any given day, many in tight quarters. These shelters are dedicated to serve this vulnerable population — but pressed to do so in conditions that experts say could be fertile ground for spreading the virus.

In a nod to the realities facing these facilities, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grants homeless shelters an exception to its advice for people to “avoid crowds as much as possible.” It has issued guidelines to shelters, including procedures for cleaning surfaces, providing a separate room to isolate residents with mild respiratory symptoms and instruction that beds be spaced 6 feet apart.

But Dr. Peter Gulick, an infectious disease expert at McLaren Greater Lansing Hospital, told Bridge it could be difficult at best to ensure residents in a homeless shelter maintain safe distance from each other at all times. That’s especially true when dozens of people congregate in the same room.

“It’s going to be a real problem,” Gulick said. “All you need is one person who is coughing out those droplets. Then two people can get infected, and those two infect two more. You see how quickly this can spread.” 

Gulick said older residents at homeless shelters are at even greater peril from coronavirus than the general population. That’s due to the combination of age and underlying health conditions including high blood pressure and chronic obstructive lung disease found in many homeless residents.

“That puts them at even greater risk,” he said.

Helen Chu, an infectious disease doctor in Seattle, an area with a high rate of homelessness and coronavirus illnesses and deaths, has called for testing shelter residents for coronavirus as a means of breaking the potential chain of infection. As of Friday afternoon, Washington ranks second among U.S. states for coronavirus cases.

“We should be very worried,” she told The New York Times.

Michigan’s prison system, with approximately 38,000 inmates, faces similar issues. To prevent the virus from spreading, the Michigan Department of Corrections has banned all in-person visitations at state prisons. But overcrowding in some prisons could make the principle of social distancing little more than a theory.

A 2019 lawsuit alleged that Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti, with about 2,000 inmates, is overcrowded, understaffed and "operating under a state of degradation, filth, and inhumanity, endangering the health and safety of incarcerated women and staff alike daily.” Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz said at the time the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but said the agency disagrees with the claims in the lawsuit.

Earlier this week, MDOC announced that two employees (in Jackson and Wayne counties) had tested positive for coronavirus.

How other states are responding to homeless 

In California — with an estimated 150,000 homeless persons, highest in the nation — Gov. Gavin Newsom warned Wednesday that disease models show that more than 60,000 of this population could get the coronavirus in coming weeks.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the city was making a push to identify homeless people considered most vulnerable to the virus, including the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions. The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to allow homeless persons to remain in tents during the day to reduce their chances of contracting the virus from others.

In New York City, officials announced Thursday that the city’s homeless shelter system had a total of seven confirmed cases of coronavirus. Three of the cases resulted in hospitalization.

The department converted a shelter into an isolation facility, where some of the individuals were staying. A spokesperson said the shelters where cases have emerged remained open and had been “comprehensively cleaned.”


Back in Michigan, City Rescue Mission of Lansing houses about 130 homeless men, women and children a night.

Spokesperson Laura Grimwood told Bridge shelter staff redoubled cleaning measures and made sure residents have ready access to hand sanitizers. She said the shelter also has moved furniture in its day areas to assure that residents would remain six feet apart.

She said it’s also instituted a policy limiting shelter residents to those from just three counties — Ingham, Eaton and Clinton — to guard against potential infection from outside the region.

“We are trying really hard and we are following the guidelines given to us,” she said.

She added that shelter officials are also advising residents that if they have a safe place to stay with friends or family, that would likely be a safer alternative to remaining in the shelter.

“Being in a closed environment in this situation is going to lead to the likelihood of getting (COVID),” she said.

Keeping children and families protected 

The Shelter of Flint houses upward of 50 men, women and children each night, including many families with small children.

Spokeswoman Shelly Hoffman said most families have their own room — but that can change when numbers rise.

“Sometimes it might be a family with a mother, and another single woman might have to be put in that room as well.”

As at other shelters, Hoffman said, it’s stepped up cleaning and sanitizing practices. It just launched daily fever checks for residents.

Hoffman said it preaches social distancing to its residents as well. But she said that can be a challenge with young children.

“I walked into our dining room and three little kids ran up to me and hugged me. It’s hard that they are in a horrible situation [being homeless] to begin with. And to be told you can’t hug and be hugged, that makes it more frightening,” she said.

Back in Grand Rapids, nonprofit organizations that serve the homeless have made other adjustments to the spread of coronavirus.

Until a few days ago, dozens of homeless people from Mel Trotter Ministries and other shelters made their way during the day to a nearby soup kitchen for a sit-down meal. 

But with Gov. Whitmer’s order on Monday shutting off sit-down service at restaurants, Catholic Charities West Michigan’s God’s Kitchen shifted to offering takeout meals. Area food pantries closed to the public and also offered takeout service instead.

At Mel Trotter Ministries, CEO VanKampen said the shelter is also taking daily temperature checks of residents and staff. It’s stepped up cleaning practices. It has a separate room for quarantine, though he said no resident has needed it thus far. He said bunk beds in that large room for men stand six feet apart.

VanKampen said staff members sent one apparently ill female resident to a nearby hospital to be evaluated. He said she tested positive for the flu — ruling out COVID-19.

He vowed the shelter would soldier through this crisis – just as it did through the 1918 flu pandemic that killed an estimated 675,000 Americans.

“We have been here since 1900. For 120 years, Mel Trotter has been the place for the homeless in this community, through epidemics, through world wars, through the Great Depression. We have always served anyone.”

Outside the shelter on Thursday, an older man wrapped in a white blanket shuffled down the sidewalk and parked himself in a crouch near a heating vent.  He had little to say about coronavirus, but noted he would take his chances outside that night.

“I stay on the street,” he said.

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