By Conor Morris
It’s a hot Friday morning at 2100 Lakeside Avenue as director of operations David Blunt walks out into the yard of the homeless shelter for men in central Cleveland.
He eyes some residents hanging out at a table, watching TV and talking, noticing something quickly.
“Hey fellas, put those masks on… put those masks on, gentlemen!” Blunt hollers.
Blunt said there’s plenty of things the shelter, run by the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, has done to keep its residents safe during the COVID-19 pandemic: Mandatory temperature checks at the door; mandated mask-wearing (residents are given a mask if they don’t have one); removing the top bunks from the beds in the shelter’s congregant-living area, and reducing the shelter’s capacity of roughly 400 beds by half.
But there’s one key piece that was missing at the beginning of the pandemic, back in March: Access to COVID-19 testing to make sure that the dangerous disease doesn’t endanger the lives of the homeless staying in shelters.
Recognizing that major gap, in early May, workers with MetroHealth Systems – in partnership with the Cuyahoga County Board of Health – tested almost 1,100 people living and working with the homeless and other shelters in the Cleveland area for COVID-19.
As of late July, they found that 33 people were positive for COVID-19 through that effort (about three percent), according to MetroHealth spokesperson Dorsena Drakeford.
Compare these findings to a federal Centers for Disease Control study of homeless shelters in Boston, for example, where roughly 36 percent of homeless shelter residents and 30 percent of staff tested positive for COVID-19 at one point in time back in early April.
The low number of positive cases at the local shelters speaks partly to efforts to de-populate those shelters, according to Dr. Michael Seidman with MetroHealth. Residents in shelters across the Cleveland area have been placed into hotels in order to allow for more social distancing.
Dr. Seidman, an assistant professor with the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, led a team with MetroHealth in partnership with Cuyahoga County to provide the mass-testing to staff and residents at the various homeless- and congregant-living shelters around Cleveland, as well as to some non-shelter locations like homeless camps.
Dr. Seidman said that effort is important because these are groups of people who don’t have health insurance, don’t have easy access to healthcare in general, and don’t necessarily have the most up-to-date information on the COVID-19.
“One of the main things that we’ve done when our team has gone out to either screen or test is to be able to, face-to-face, answer some questions to the best of our ability, both shelter staff and clients,” Dr. Seidman said.
Michael Sering, VP of housing and shelter with Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, said that the partnership with MetroHealth has evolved to the point that anybody new in the shelter is required to be tested, as well.
“They were able to test everybody at the shelter, so we were able to do one big mass testing just to get started,” Sering said. “And then now they come a couple times a week and they test any of the people who are new to the shelter… when we have new people they would be designated to one area until they’ve been tested.”
Bobby Watts, CEO of the nonprofit National Health Care for the Homeless Council, said there are several constants that all congregant-living shelters should be doing during the pandemic. The big three? Requiring residents to wear masks; spacing residents out; and cleaning constantly.
“The term that’s come into use is to ‘decompress’ areas,” Watts explained. “Decompress the cafeteria, the same with classrooms… basically, limit the number of people that can be in there at one time. Some missions have… chapel service and instead of having everyone in the chapel at once, they may broadcast it to various parts of the building.”
Back in 2100, even with attempts to reduce the number of people in the shelter, there’s difficulty in achieving enough distance to keep residents separated from each other. The beds are “6 feet-ish” apart, said 2100’s David Blunt, in large communal sleeping areas.
A recent study by the Cleveland Institute of Art found that in order to achieve an ideal balance of living space with adequate distance, the shelter would need to have a maximum of 120 residents. It’s currently hovering at around 180, Sering said. The shelter will work to reduce the population further as time goes on, Sering added.
Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. You can find him on Twitter at @condormorris, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 16-plus Greater Cleveland news outlets including (partner’s name).