It’s impossible to stay at home if you don’t have one.
Social distancing is difficult when community members are standing in line for food or supplies and using shared facilities for showers or laundry. Corvallis is no stranger to its people being affected by homelessness, but it is to pandemics like that of COVID-19.
“One of our original goals is, of course, socialization,” said Corvallis Daytime Drop-In Center director Aleita Hass-Holcombe. “And that has changed a lot.”
So Corvallis facilities catering to the homeless and hungry are either adapting by moving their services outside or even doubling down on their regular procedures.
At the Daytime Drop-in Center on Southwest Fourth Street, which primarily acts as a hub of resources for people to find meals and places to stay, the model has been continuing to let people pick up supplies and grab bagged lunches. Recently, they’ve gotten a surge in camping equipment requests.
“The implicit bias is that we’re encouraging camping, but so be it,” Hass-Holcombe said. “Everyone needs shelter. Food insecurity doesn’t stop at noon.”
On the flip side, the Room at the Inn women’s shelter has been letting more people inside.
The cold-weather shelter could have closed as a safety precaution in mid-March when the coronavirus began blowing up in Oregon.
Instead, “We are extending everything we’re doing,” said Rev. Linda Tucker of First United Methodist Church on Northwest Monroe Avenue. The church runs and houses the program. “This really ramped up because of our commitment to these women.”
On March 13, two days after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, church leaders decided to keep the shelter open beyond its usual March 31 seasonal closing date this year. They brought in more beds — set up at the proper distance from one another — increasing their capacity from 18 to 25 in the church’s community center. Instead of closing at 9 a.m. and reopening at 7 p.m., they’re keeping the shelter open around the clock, and and they changed the routine of handing out morning and evening snacks to providing three meals a day.
The makeshift shelter has bathroom and kitchen facilities, a TV, a small collection of movies on DVD and art kits for the residents. Some of them have planted their own mini-gardens.
Tricia Narma, 52, has been living at the shelter since mid-February. Before that, she said, she had been sleeping in her car, grappling with mental health issues and “self-medicating” with alcohol.
“I was really in bad shape,” Narma said.
Now, she said, she has been sober for 30 days and is applying to get into a residential addiction treatment program to continue her recovery.
“It’s just a huge blessing,” she said of Room at the Inn. “It feels like sanctuary to me.”
Just last week, the church brought in four “microshelters” — small wooden structures with electric light and heat that are set up just outside the community center. Tucker said the church is seeking permission from the city to use the 8-by-15-foot buildings as transitional housing for women with children.
In the meantime, she said, the microshelters can be used as isolation units in case any of their women develop symptoms of COVID-19, which hasn’t happened.
A the Corvallis Men’s Shelter on Southeast Chapman Place, service coordinator Shawn Collins said they’ve had to take the opposite approach.
“Our mission at the shelter is ‘safe sleep,’” he said, “And we made a decision on about (March 19) that we really could not keep people safe inside, so we had to shut down our overnight sleeping shelter.”
The move, made because of the challenge of adapting to social distancing standards given the bunk beds that serve as the sleeping quarters, has changed the shelter’s operation considerably, Collins said.
“It’s clear that this will be going on for some time,” Collins said. “We’re committed to be open at least through the month of April. We’re like everybody right now — we’re learning as we go.”
But the shelter still offers showers, toilets and laundry equipment. Staff have been handing out food bags, too.
Their new goal is “trying to engage with the population and encourage social distancing,” Collins said. Although they haven’t been accepting volunteers to minimize person-to-person contact, the center is still running as a “food and hygiene center” now serving both men and women.
Many people who don’t have anywhere else to go have been pitching tents behind the facility, so staff have been checking in with campers to make sure they have what they need.
“I know it’s not ideal,” Collins said. “People are concerned about the sudden explosion of tents in the area. This virus is not limited to anybody’s economic status. We’re all trying to be as flexible and sensitive to the needs of the community as possible.”
On the non-shelter front, Stone Soup continues to provide free hot meals to the community.
“We serve every day of the week, 365 days a year,” said Stone Soup President Sara Ingle. “And we’re trying to come up with a model to handle that. There is going to be so much need in the community.
The meal service has pivoted to take-out meals only and hired Valley Catering staff to replace its usual volunteers.
Although stressing the importance of social distancing, Ingle said, “One unfortunate thing about to-go meals is that (people in need) can’t sit down and be warm and socialize.”
But the program, along with many of the shelters, is offering mobile hand-washing stations, to ensure proper hygiene.
All of the organizations urged members of the community to make donations. Whether it be cash or supplies or food, each of the leaders said there are plenty of ways to step up and help.
“We’re in this for the long haul and it’s going to be expensive,” Ingle said. “I’m just thankful that we live in a really generous community that cares about the less fortunate among us.”
Writer Bennett Hall contributed to this story.
Reporter Nia Tariq can be reached at email@example.com or 541-812-6091.
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