Amid coronavirus fears, shelters make changes to protect homeless

Homeless shelters in metro Atlanta are taking preemptive measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Non-profit organizations operating the shelters said Friday they’ve shifted bed layouts, stocked up on supplies or implemented additional health screenings. And at least one shelter closed its doors earlier than normal in the year.

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Cathal Doyle, the director at Central Night Shelter in Atlanta, said the organization decided to close Friday “because of the risk to our volunteers.” The shelter regularly serves 120 homeless men and is usually open Nov. 1 through March 31.

The homeless population is especially at risk for coronavirus symptoms because many do not receive regular medical care and have pre-existing medical conditions. People within shelters usually sleep near one another, and those sleeping outside generally do not have access to good sanitation, said Dr. Mark Swancutt, a staff physician in the respiratory clinic of the Fulton County Board of Health.

“They suffer from a number of disadvantages compared to the non-homeless population,” he said.

Earlier this week, Swancutt gave a presentation to about 40 representatives from shelters in metro Atlanta about how they should prepare for the coronavirus outbreak. According to the Atlanta Continuum of Care, there were about 3,200 homeless people living in the city of Atlanta alone in 2019.

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While Doyle's shelter did not have any confirmed cases of the virus, he said 90% of the men who stay there fit the demographic forbeing at high risk for COVID-19. If one client were to test positive for the virus, Doyle said it would spread through the shelter quickly since the sleeping quarters are housed in an open area.

Doyle said Central Night Shelter staff first began monitoring the coronavirus outbreak when it began in China. It also relied on the advice of doctors and others in the medical profession who help the shelter with outreach efforts.

The majority of metro Atlanta shelters are staying open, but taking special precautions.

At MUST Ministries in Cobb County, people coming to its 72-bed Elizabeth Inn shelter will be screened for medical problems, including the flu and possible coronavirus. MUST is also deep-cleaning its bed areas. President and CEO Ike Reighard who said no clients have tested positive for the virus, and that the organization has been in contact daily with the Cobb & Douglas Public Health Department.

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MUST staff members also have restricted access to its Marietta campus on Cobb Parkway. People who come to the facility to obtain clothing and food will be directed to a mobile site at the charity’s gates rather that being allowed inside. There, they will be able to grab food twice a day and pick up any clothing they may need.

If a person suddenly becomes ill, MUST will quarantine that person, Reighard said. Staff will then reach out to the health department to determine how to proceed.

Decatur Cooperative Ministry operates a 30-bed night shelter for families facing homelessness. Executive Director Marlene White said staff has altered its bed layout “to reduce cough hazards, so people aren’t sleeping head to head to head.” The shelter, which was at capacity last night, also lowered the number of daily volunteers and is conducting wellness checks.

“With the schools closing, we have children who are out of school. With (businesses) closing, we have families that are losing income and vital resources,” White said. “It’s important to be conscious of the fact that homelessness is not stopping in the midst of the pandemic.”