Coronavirus has made those who help the homeless in Baton Rouge ensure their efforts don’t do more harm than good.
“The likelihood is we will be the ones giving the coronavirus to the people we serve,” said Tiffany Simpson, director of It Takes a Village, which distributes food and clothing to the homeless near the North Boulevard overpass.
“They stay with themselves. They’re not going to Walmart and Sam’s (Club) and everywhere else and the store and work. They’re with each other. So we understand the likelihood will be if there’s spread, it will come from us intending to do good if we’re not maintaining good health and safety.”
With that in mind, local organizations for the homeless have changed many aspects of their ministries. For some, the virus has not only increased the cost of their efforts but hurt their fundraising efforts.
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The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which has four shelters and provides daily meals for the homeless, has eliminated all volunteers from working at its campus, said Michael Acaldo, the society's president. The Salvation Army also is keeping volunteers away from those in its Airline Highway shelter and residential drug and alcohol program, said Maj. Don Tekautz, Baton Rouge commander.
The Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless drop-in center is allowing only five clients inside at a time and screens each one for virus symptoms, said Allison Traxler, chief development officer for Volunteers of America Greater Baton Rouge, which operates the center. They are asked to wash their hands with soap and water before entering. Those who have appointments with the Baton Rouge primary care clinic inside are being separated and if they show signs of respiratory symptoms receive masks and use a separate clinic entrance.
Many homeless have underlying health issues that make them vulnerable to the virus’ worst effects, Takautz said. All local homeless organizations reported stepping up sanitation and hygiene efforts.
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The Salvation Army has always done breathalyzer tests on anyone who comes to the shelter; now, it takes temperatures, too, Takautz said. Those with fever are sent to St. Vincent de Paul or the CAAH drop-in center for evaluation, and to Baton Rouge General Hospital if needed.
The shelter has reduced its maximum capacity from 65 to 50 during the coronavirus outbreak to create more social distancing, Takautz said. St. Vincent de Paul is changing its habits, too.
“This is my 31st year at St. Vincent, and the way we used to think up until this virus hit was pack people in,” Acaldo said. “When there’s a freeze night, get as many people in as possible. When there’s a hurricane coming or something of that nature, you get people inside.
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“Now, our philosophy is more of what the CDC is telling us to do. Have enough space for distancing, ensuring that those we are serving are safe, not at risk.”
To minimize disease risk, SVDP hands out takeout meals through a window instead of serving the homeless in the dining room. It now discourages men who stay in the shelter from leaving during the day unless they have a job or doctor’s appointment. The shelter can’t force them to stay, Acaldo said, but if they do, they cannot return that night.
“As a nonprofit, our costs have gone through the roof because what volunteers used to do, staff is having to work overtime to do,” Acaldo said. “The second thing is we’ve expanded hours and services, so those costs are also impacting us.”
The timing of the outbreak also has forced The Salvation Army to postpone its May fundraising gala and delayed St. Vincent’s Easter fundraising mailing.
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“We’re just hopeful that people will … be able to contribute,” Acaldo said. “I know a lot of people are hurting personally because they’re unable to go to work and may have taken a big hit in the stock market. Whatever they can do will greatly help us keep our doors open and continue to make a difference to people who are truly in need.”
Missionaries of Charity, which has a shelter and provides meals for women and children at St. Agnes Catholic Church, is not discouraging volunteers but is getting fewer of them during the virus outbreak, said a sister who declined to be identified because the mother superior is out of town on a retreat.
“I don’t blame them,” she said. “We do all the work now. Even now, there are some very courageous ones that come and help. But they are working at home. They cook the food at home. They just don’t want to serve it.”
Raven’s Outreach Center for Homeless Veterans has avoided many of the difficulties of other organizations because each resident has a private bedroom, which increases social distancing, said Michelle Scott, Raven’s director. Most of its residents are disabled and do not leave the facility, and the center is not taking new residents to avoid introducing the virus.
It Takes a Village has suspended its clothes distribution and reduced the number of volunteers to minimize spreading the disease, Simpson said.
“The need is definitely there, and the need is going to probably continue to increase as kids are out of school and restaurants are closed,” she said. “We feel we definitely have a duty to continue what we’re doing, but we’re also taking very seriously the potential effects of not handling things properly.”