Social Distancing in a Large Shelter Environment

Weeks ago, when news of the coming coronavirus pandemic made its way to the Carolinas, The Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte began immediately considering the ramifications on the city’s most vulnerable – those experiencing homelessness.

At its Center of Hope shelter, more than 400 women and children regularly find a safe haven from the streets. The Center of Hope is a place where families find not only food and lodging, but resources to help them discover a path out of homelessness. COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, changes everything.

The first case of COVID-19 in Charlotte was diagnosed on March 11. In the time since, the number of known positive cases has grown significantly. (*At the time of this writing, 97 positive cases have been documented, a number which is rising drastically by the day). To prevent the spread of the disease, local public health officials began to implement serious measures aimed at slowing its progress. Large (and eventually small) gatherings were prohibited. Events were cancelled. Restaurants and bars were closed. Stores began selling out of essentials like cleaning products, hand sanitizer and toilet paper. How do you navigate these requirements and difficult circumstances while serving so many families in need in one building?

Mecklenburg County government leaders, along with the United Way, began working alongside The Salvation Army to come up with solutions. First and foremost, the best way to keep COVID-19 from entering and spreading in homeless shelters is to increase the space between residents. When there’s no addition bed space available, that means thinking outside the building. Leaders immediately embarked on an effort to reduce the number of residents in the shelter by more than half, by working with local hotels and motels.

The Salvation Army quickly moved more than 50 families with young children out of the shelter temporarily into comfortable rooms and suites where they are able to safely practice social distancing. These hotel and motel locations are staffed around the clock with shelter personnel, so families have regular access to resources. While the crisis is ongoing, The Salvation Army is continuing to make sure each family has its daily needs met. Case workers are checking in via video conferencing tools such as FaceTime and Skype.

“At the Center of Hope, the health and safety of the people we serve is our top priority,” said Major Larry Broome, area commander for The Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte. “We are appreciative of the collaboration with Mecklenburg County and the United Way in helping us make these local hotel arrangements for many of our families experiencing homelessness. This critical step will help many – not only those finding a safe place outside the shelter, but for those who remain in our care at the Center of Hope.”

For the women still residing at the Center of Hope shelter, they now have more space to spread out and are able to safely distance between each other. In addition, The Salvation Army is continuing to work with local government, public health and emergency management officials, as well as the medical professionals at on-site clinic to ensure its residents are well-informed, safe and observing proper preventative measures.

Social distancing is a hard concept for all of us to grasp. It’s even harder for vulnerable populations who don’t have alternate living arrangements or access to the same comforts many of us enjoy. Having to keep a safe distance from each other reminds us all of how much we need each other. The Salvation Army is continuing to find creative ways to keep families experiencing homelessness not only safe from the streets, but also safe from the virus making its way through the streets. Eventually, this crisis will pass. In the meantime, The Salvation Army’s mission to serve those in most need will go on.

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