By Anika Nykanen
In mid-April, Sheryl Balthrop, executive director of the Eugene Mission, had been sleeping at the shelter for about a month and working seven days a week to keep the seven-acre campus open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She says the mission is running on a skeleton crew. Balthrop is serving 260 residents and running a mobile drop-off team with a staff of ten and a couple “low-risk” volunteers.
Balthrop has not visited her family since she began her stay at the shelter. Although she calls her mother every day, she hasn’t been within 10 feet of her since the crisis began.
“I don’t feel that I can create that risk for my family. So yeah, I miss them,” Balthrop says.
The COVID-19 pandemic has gutted some organizations’ capacity to provide shelter and meal programs, pressure cooking those providers still serving on the frontlines.
Arwen Maas-Despain is the director of Carry It Forward, a non-profit that provides various services to the unhoused. She is running a pop-up, low-barrier shelter at the Springfield Memorial Building, one of the two temporary respite sites Lane County has contracted to expand shelter capacity during the pandemic. She says she has been working 80-hour weeks since the pandemic began.
“I’m tired and fatigued pretty much all of the time,” Maas-Despain says.
Many service providers for the unhoused have seen their costs skyrocket, revenue streams go down, and a loss in employees and volunteers due to health concerns.
“The majority of our volunteers fit into a high-risk category,” Balthrop says. Older volunteers, people living with sick families and those with underlying conditions have all been asked to go home. “We went from hundreds to a couple, literally,” she says.
At St. Vincent De Paul, the volunteer program has been entirely suspended, according to executive director Terry McDonald. SVDP operates First Family Place, the Egan Warming Center, and the Dusk to Dawn Shelter, among other programs for unhoused residents.
McDonald says many of the volunteers are older. “We don’t want to take the risk of exposing them to COVID-19.”
At First Family Center, volunteers are not the only support people who have been sent home, says Mike Yoshioka, director of the facility.
“We cannot take the risk of having staff that are symptomatic come to work even if it’s just allergies or the common cold,” Yoshioka says.
To keep symptomatic employees on the payroll, Yoshioka says First Family Center has had to get creative with sick time and paid time off, as well as find duties for staff that can be done remotely. To cover the on-sight responsibilities of employees who have been sent home, the shelter has had to make temporary hires.
These changes doubled personnel costs at a facility where revenue is already down because of the closure of SVDP’s thrift stores, whose proceeds partially covered the costs of the shelter, according to Yoshioka.
A lack of volunteers and the additional costs associated with the crisis are compounded by limited access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at shelters.
“One thing that is overlooked in the need for PPE is those folks who are sheltering homeless individuals that have a high likelihood of being COVID carriers,” Yoshioka says.
Balthrop agrees the lack of PPE is concerning for those serving the unhoused. “We are right in our guests’ breathing space and everything else and we have no PPE. But there is no other way around it, there is not enough PPE to go around,” she says. “You have to serve here with a certain amount of bravery.”
Lane County spokesperson Devon Ashbridge says the county has distributed more than 66,000 pieces of PPE according to the state’s approved distribution plan, which does not include shelters.
“We currently have adequate supplies in Lane County when you combine the State’s distribution and what we’ve collected through donations,” Ashbridge says.
According to Sue Sierralupe, clinical manager of Occupy Medical and program director Wheeler Unhoused Medical Respite (WUMR), a free medical respite center, the shortage of PPE is not limited to non-medical shelters.
“We can’t buy masks, we can’t buy thermometers,” Sierralupe says. “They’re gone, they’re just gone. If we can’t get it made or we can’t get it donated we just don’t have it,” she says.
Occupy Medical signed a $133,566 contract with Lane County in late March to operate WUMR, according to county records. The contract ends June 30. The respite site is a temporary medical shelter set up for low-risk patients to recover during the pandemic. Sierralupe says the county has been “just fabulous” since the crisis began.
Despite the threat of COVID-19 and the lack of PPE, Sierralupe says she is pleased with some of the changes she has seen in Eugene. “You’ve got to look for a rainbow,” she says.
For Sierralupe, that rainbow is not difficult to see. Seventy three portable restrooms and fifty eight handwashing stations, which for decades homelessness activists have advocated for, have been installed across the city. Sierralupe says the creation of the respite center at WUMR has enabled an expansion of care across the board for the medically indigent and unhoused.
“People are getting help while they are in our care for some of their other conditions, everything from addiction to infections, to hepatitis,” Sierralupe says.
Maas-DeSpain, Carry It Forward’s director, says the pandemic has shone a light on the issue of homelessness, and she feels less alone in the fight for better support systems for the unhoused.
“My hope is, as we come out of COVID, we won’t lose the momentum that we have right now in trying to make these things better,” Maas-DeSpain says. “I don’t want to go back to where we were before.” Maas-Despain says Carry It Forward’s contract with Lane County to run the temporary respite site in Springfield ends June 5.
Eric Jackson, an unhoused activist who has led protest camps for the decriminalization of homelessness over the past two years, identified another silver lining. He says before the pandemic the unhoused were profiled for wearing masks to avoid surveillance, “now we aren’t at all, now it’s totally common,” he says.
Nonetheless, he shared his fear about what will happen if someone in his community gets sick: “How horrifyingly rapidly it will spread throughout their entire social group, their entire core camping group.”
In the unhoused community, tight social circles are a means of safety, according to Jackson. “Safety of property, safety of self, safety of closing your eyes and falling asleep and waking up with the same property. Because if you are alone, you can guarantee that it’s not there,” Jackson says.
Sierralupe says she has also seen the safety benefit of tight social circles in the unhoused community. Her patients are left in dire situations when their insulin needles, antibiotics and epilepsy medication are stolen while they sleep. Although clustering as a protective measure might make them vulnerable to COVID-19, the unhoused community’s immediate concerns may outweigh the threat of the virus, according to Sierralupe. She phrased the choice simply: “live through the night, or risk getting COVID.”
The importance of a strong community for survival is not limited to the unhoused. Several care providers identified cooperation among agencies as a critical resource of knowledge and strength in a rapidly changing health crisis. They noted how grateful they were for teamwork with their staff. The Eugene Mission and the Wheeler Unhoused Respite Center are reliant on donations from the community for protective gear.
“Fortunately,” Sierralupe says, “we live in a very very loving, giving, generous community.”
Balthrop’s greatest fear about the pandemic is that this sense of community will be fractured through mistrust, leading to an even greater stigmatization of unhoused residents.
Her concerns are underlined by conversations she has had with housed community members. Every few days she gets calls from them “asking basically whether or not my guests are vectors of COVID-19.” According to Balthrop, these housed residents are essentially asking “more or less, what am I doing to keep the (housed) community safe from my guests.”
For her, this kind of thinking represents a gross misconception about the crisis.
“That’s the terrible thing about pandemics,” she says. “When fear is involved, we want to look around and blame someone. And that’s the last thing we want to do. We want to pull together as a community and all of us do what we can.”