GIFTS Men’s Shelter recently offered accommodations to a man who walked out of the woods along the Rock River and told staff he couldn’t stand one more night of sleeping under bare trees on the cold ground.
At the House of Mercy Homeless Center, a family of five with nowhere else to go just moved in, joining about 15 others at the shelter.
Those are just a few recent late-season guests at local homeless shelters who are seeking respite as blistering-cold winter weather looms and the coronavirus pandemic rages out of control.
For shelters that are the last port for the homeless to evade potentially deadly cold weather, this winter will only bring more complexities—and perhaps more uncertainty than ever before.
For one thing, shelter officials say they’re still operating under county health restrictions that reduce the number of homeless clients they can house.
GIFTS Director John Koesema said the shelter likely will scale back its occupancy even more to fit the Rock County Public Health Department’s new COVID-19 recommendation this week that businesses and public places—including nonprofit agencies—limit their occupancy to 25% capacity. The guidance means GIFTS could fill just 11 of the 42 beds at its shelter and recovery center on the city’s west side.
Officials say the county has yet to decide how it might manage emergency warming centers that operate during dangerous cold snaps. Meanwhile, some state unemployment benefits and a state moratorium on apartment evictions are set to expire in December, which could spell an influx of new shelter guests, officials said.
House of Mercy Manager Tammie King-Johnson said her shelter continues to operate under the county’s earlier, phase-two COVID-19 recovery guidelines that recommend public places limit occupancy to 50% capacity.
The House of Mercy is one of the few local shelters that cater to women and children who face homelessness or possible domestic abuse by a partner they’re trying to escape.
King-Johnson said the shelter is seeing a “slight reduction” in its normal waiting list for 30-day to 60-day accommodations.
Normally, the shelter has a waiting list of 100 clients at this time of year. That number has fallen to about 50 recently.
King-Johnson said that’s partly because a temporary moratorium on rental evictions has reduced some situational homelessness.
Still, a spike in unemployment and underemployment coupled with a shortfall of affordable housing have made rent even more unaffordable for an already vulnerable population.
King-Johnson said local social service agencies—some of which are members of a city homelessness task force—have been talking about how to use state funding earmarked for low-income rental assistance. That money can’t be used until the moratorium on evictions ends next month, she said.
Meanwhile, no one can predict what path the pandemic could take this winter. It’s not clear yet how much COVID-19 infection rates, which already have strained public and private health care systems, will worsen before a vaccine becomes available to the public.
Neither GIFTS nor House of Mercy has reported any COVID-19 illnesses since the start of the pandemic, the agencies’ officials said. Koesema said GIFTS requires clients to test negative for COVID-19 before they’re allowed in.
New clients are required to wear masks in the shelter for at least 14 days.
Also unclear is whether federal, state or local governments will try to enact more COVID-19 shutdowns and whether they will approve a new wave of stimulus for displaced workers—and to what extent that stimulus might reach communities’ most vulnerable residents.
Some families who are homeless are currently staying with extended family members. That might ease shelter caseloads in the short haul, King-Johnson said. But she said there’s a concern that people who are in and out of different homes might be more at risk for coronavirus infection.
For that and other reasons, House of Mercy, which is run by Mercyhealth, is considering expanding the limit on occupancy to beyond 60 days. That’s after the shelter extended the cap from 30 days to 60 to address a local housing shortage and gap in rent affordability, King-Johnson said.
The change could make wait times longer, although King-Johnson said the impact depends on many variables—not the least of which is how cold the weather might get.
“This all is totally unprecedented,” she said. “I really don’t think that any social service provider who works with the homeless population can predict how this winter or the next year is going to go. Nobody can predict that.”
Koesema took over the helm of GIFTS earlier this year in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. After running a metropolitan homeless shelter in Texas, the Chicago native will get his first taste of a typical Midwestern winter in years.
The GIFTS shelter offers temporary housing, job assistance and counseling to homeless men, who often can suffer from substance abuse disorders, mental illness and other health problems.
Koesema said for the safety of clients, GIFTS will comply as much as possible with county recommendations on occupancy, even if it means the shelter won’t be able to serve its typical client base of between 25 and 30 homeless men.
But he worries about clients like the man who he said came to GIFTS from a makeshift encampment in the woods.
That man has a modestly-paying job but no savings, Koesema said, and he has fought substance abuse problems in the past. The man’s motivation to rise from homelessness is that he wants to reconnect with his daughter.
Koesema worries because he’s not sure whether clients like that man will have immediate options on a subzero night when GIFTS is at capacity.
He said he’s been unable to learn from the county or private entities whether co-op warming centers will operate this winter.
And if they do, it’s not clear what limits they might have.
Koesema wonders whether other private entities might step up to offer more warming capacity if the county hits its limitations.
Rock County sheriff’s Sgt. Sheena Kohler, the county’s emergency management director, didn’t immediately respond to a Gazette inquiry on plans for warming centers.
Mary Penny-Fanning, who leads the Blackhawk Region’s United Way office in Janesville, said a county official told social service agencies earlier this week that the county still was discussing plans for warming centers.
In case GIFTS reaches its whittled-down, COVID-era capacity, Koesema said he’s got one ace in the hole—although it might work for only a day or two.
“We would probably find a, you know, get you a sleeping blanket and a cot and put you in our heated front lobby, and spend the night,” he said. “We’d make sure you have breakfast. Then the next day, we can hopefully find some more resources out there.”