By Bryan Smith, LCCM Executive Director
Providing a homeless shelter is easy, right? I mean, just throw a couple cots on the floor and let folks come in and sleep.
Well, the reality is that it isn’t that easy.
Add to that when you designate your shelter as a family shelter - where men and women will comingle with families and children - and it gets a whole lot more complicated. Safety becomes a significant priority, not that it isn’t a priority at a men’s only or a women’s only shelter, but it certainly creates an interesting dynamic.
The FRESH Start Resource Center and Homeless Shelter has been making it work for the last three years at the LCCM building on South 7th Street.
Before FRESH Start, it was a partnership between Jubilee and Lebanon County Christian Ministries (LCCM) called HOPES. During the three years of service at LCCM, the team has learned a lot about managing the day-to-day operations.
Today, the FRESH Start provides guests with a full kitchen, laundry facilities, a children’s play area, a shower/bathroom, computers for housing and job search needs, and a common space to do homework, pay bills, and many other activities.
The overnight accommodations are provided by generous churches in our community and the volunteer membership who provide the staffing nightly. These spaces are considered congregate living spaces. Each church takes a two-week period to provide snacks and sleeping areas.
All our guests are required to provide a warrant check and a urine screen for illicit drugs.
Once both are clear, the intake process begins.
Offered a small bin for personal effects and storage space on a rack for food, our guests begin a week of acclimation to shelter life and then the case management begins.
What jobs did you apply for today? Have you worked to secure childcare so you can get a job? Did you go to work today and is your performance what your boss is expecting? Did you apply for SNAP benefits or MA? Did you go to your doctor appointment that was on your schedule? Accountability questions posed by our staff to ensure our guests begin to address personal responsibility and executing tasks to meet goals that have been established cooperatively with our team.
Now, enter COVID-19.
Our worlds, just like yours, were turned upside down.
We immediately began to establish an emergency plan of action. This plan of action was a multi-step plan that was intended to be proactive to our guests needs and the ever-changing COVID cases in our community.
We had anticipated a reduction in volunteers and a need to protect the volunteers in the churches. We needed to find a location where we were able to isolate our guests if needed, a place to have a refrigerator, a cooking device (i.e. microwave), and shower facilities.
Meeting all these needs is a hotel/motel. We partnered with a local hotel to establish aggressive rates and were able to quickly register all our guests. We also established a house agreement with each of our guests outlining the expected behaviors and the behaviors that would result in immediate dismissal from our program.
Additionally, we were able to modify our hours of operations and the time our guests spent in our resource center.
We established specific times and days for each family unit to come and prepare meals for the week, pickup needed food for the next week, do their laundry and get any other essentials. Every day our staff checks in with guests, which includes a COVID screening question. This gets documented every day to ensure we identify any concerns immediately.
Through partnership with Wellspan, we have a tablet device that should a guest respond “yes” to any questions on the screening, we could do a virtual urgent care visit at no cost. This plan has afforded our guests and staff with increased safety AND keeping folks accountable.
While there has been a cost associated with this, our decision has been reaffirmed with best practices coming from California. In a recent white paper titled, “Recommended Strategic Approaches for COVID-19 Response for Individuals Experiencing Homelessness – March 2020,” the document states best practices are hotel/motel environments. The Lebanon community has been working diligently to address three classes of individuals:
All three categories have ideal housing solutions to include hotel/motel to address social distancing and isolation.
We believe our early planning and action to partner into a hotel/motel space has provided the highest level of protection for our guests and our staff. After all, safety has been and always will be our priority for our guests, staff, and volunteers.