By JULIA KURZ
As many rushed to supermarkets to stock up on food or buy wholesale orders of cleaning supplies, the homeless population in Monterey County remained in search of food and shelter, but now that protection against a deadly virus is one of the top priorities of homeless service providers, protocols to obtain that food and shelter have been restructured and some once-provided services have been put on hold.
Gathering for Women, a nonprofit serving the homeless women of Monterey County, is one organization that has recently become acquainted with the reality of a changing landscape when it comes to supplying relief, according to executive director Staci Alziebler-Perkins.
The nonprofit used to be able to provide sit-down, hot and nutritious breakfasts Monday through Friday, and the same for lunch Monday through Thursday with take-away bags of sandwiches on Friday afternoons. Now their options consist of take-out meals and encouraging guests to leave promptly, unlike the typical culture, Aziebler-Perkins describes, of guests being able to linger all day.
“Now it is either sandwiches or wraps, fruit, water, chips or crackers and other to-go snacks in a paper bag,” Aziebler-Perkins says.
Not only is a hot meal experience unattainable at the moment, but guests can only sign up for showers and emergency case management, whereas before they could sign up for classes on meditation, how to write a résumé or meet with a health professional. On the upside, their clothes closet where guests can get clean clothes, jackets, shoes and personal items is still in operation.
Every nonprofit is having to adapt, and for the most part, those who are homeless are still able to access relief in a safe and healthy manner.
“In early March, we started placing portable toilets and hand sanitation stations throughout both counties and have been delivering food directly to the homeless,” executive director of the Coalition of Homeless Services Providers Roxanne Wilson explains. “We have distributed masks and hand sanitizer to nonprofit agencies and directly to the individuals as well. These are not things a Continuum of Care would usually do, but during times like these, everybody needs to help in any way possible.”
All emergency shelters, transitional housing and food kitchens, in accordance with the shelter-in-place order, have enacted new methods of keeping their guests safe by introducing a “no ins and outs” policy, quadrupling cleaning operations and using masks, face shields and gloves.
Dorothy’s Place, an organization dedicated to providing essential services and transitional support to those experiencing homelessness in Monterey County, has recently installed sinks on the exterior of their building, enforcing the washing of hands among their clients before receiving meals at the front door. Likewise, Gathering for Women leaves marks on the ground, indicating where women should stand while waiting for their food in order to maintain proper social distancing.
Another option for some organizations has been providing virtual case management and counseling to continue to preserve the health of both their clients and the counseling professionals.
Indoor dining with a mess hall-like design isn’t an option anymore for any food kitchens, so for spaces that could once fit 45 people comfortably in a large dining hall–the case for the Monterey Peninsula Foundation Founder’s Center which hosts a commercial kitchen and a shower facility–their carrying capacity is now capped at 10 people, including staff and volunteers.
Alziebler-Perkins recalls a fond memory of sharing those precious warm meals together in large settings, being able to congregate without the fear of contracting a deadly virus. She remembers things like bountiful feasts on Thanksgivings and Christmases, with guests and volunteers celebrating together and a table so full they had to have two separate seatings.
No one knows when things will be able to go back to any version of normal, but in the meantime, a macro-level organization of policy makers and funders of nonprofits recently galvanized by the current pandemic, called the Coalition of Homeless Services Provider, has been meeting with its members in upwards of 10 times since the beginning of March to address the current needs of the homeless. This coalition consists of 20 nonprofits with goals of supporting the wellbeing of Monterey and San Benito counties’ homeless.
The coalition’s most recent project has been allocating $500,000 to both counties in an effort to get homeless people off the street and into motel rooms: Project Room-Key. Leadership of the coalition has been providing daily support to the county to help motivate the project and get it off the ground.
“As early as next week we will start moving people into the safety of motel rooms,” says Roxanne Wilson, executive director of the coalition.
An allocation of $12 million to nonprofits from before the shelter-in-place order will streamline the building of two emergency shelters, 14 tiny homes and 14 permanent supportive housing units, as well as the provision of rental assistance and homeless youth outreach, all of which is opportune for this time. Those projects have either begun development or will be up and running at 100% capacity within the next year, according to Wilson.
“Our organization is the Continuum of Care for both Monterey and San Benito counties,” explains Wilson, meaning they provide housing and services to homeless families and individuals through funding and advising its appropriations, but also by offering help and advice to the team responsible for the emergency planning for COVID-19.
The county is now developing a plan for the homeless, but hasn’t released any details. Meanwhile, nonprofits have been hard at work, but things haven’t been easy for those that rely heavily on volunteers, and the social distancing protocol outlined by the Environmental Health Bureau impacts the array of services that can be provided by these organizations, Wilson explains.
For the 2,500 homeless in Monterey County, this is a scary time.
“Some are quite frightened and get updates of the statistics on their cell phone,” Alziebler-Perkins says. “Others take it in stride, accustomed to living on the edge and fighting for their lives.”
The Gathering for Women director explains that in the beginning of the pandemic, there was a bit of resistance from some of the guests: “There was resistance to all the new, ever-changing rules. However, now they are realizing it is for their protection, as well as ours. They also understand that following the rules is required for us to remain open, and that our food, showers and hand-washing facilities are crucial to keeping them healthy.”
The Coalition of Homeless Services Providers is currently applying for $3.2 million in funding that will be used to continue to coordinate and provide these services to Monterey and San Benito counties, both now and after the COVID-19 pandemic.