BENTON HARBOR — For years, homeless shelters have been a refuge for those who have no other place to go between the hours of 5 p.m. and 9 a.m.
But due to the novel coronavirus emergency, they’ve all had to expand their hours to 24/7.
“Before, they would go to their jobs, the library, social service agencies, and other places during the day. Now, many of those places are closed or not available. Some still go to their jobs, but it’s created a strain,” said Major David Womack, of the Benton Harbor Salvation Army’s Men’s Shelter.
It’s created a strain on other area shelters as well, including the ones for women and families in Van Buren County operated by the Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency (SWMCAA), and in Benton Harbor by Emergency Shelter Services (ESS).
Officials at those shelters say their staffs are now spread thin and they’re running out of supplies.
“We’re keeping the facility clean, sanitizing everything, and making sure the people are kept clean,” Womack said. “That’s left us with a shortage of sanitizing supplies, including gloves and masks. And if our staff becomes sick, that becomes even more of a burden because we have to pay them while they’re out, and pay for overtime for the person covering for them.”
Womack said besides the cleaning, all the beds are now arranged to keep the men’s heads 6 feet apart and the men and the staff all have their temperatures taken as they come into the building.
Reshella Hawkins, director of the ESS shelter in Benton Harbor, said every client that comes into the shelter must wash their hands immediately.
“We’ve always done a lot of sanitizing and cleaning, but this has caused us to do it a little more often on high traffic items, like door knobs,” she said.
With the stay at home order, most clients will stay in the shelter during the day and night now, Hawkins said.
That’s the same at the shelter in Decatur, ran by SWMCAA.
Yvonne Vidt, community services manager for SWMCAA, said the clients will be able to leave to get groceries and such, but the agency’s commodity warehouse in Benton Harbor has been able to provide extra products to the shelter.
On a recent morning the agency held a meeting regarding how to spread out its staff during the lockdown, because its hours of operation have also increased.
“We also have a room set aside at the shelter were we can contain someone who is sick, even if they just have a cold,” Vidt said.
Womack said the men’s shelter also has a quarantine room ready for anyone showing symptoms of illness.
He said if anyone got a high enough fever, the shelter staff would work with health care providers to get that person tested.
Other changes that have been implemented include the cancellation of all groups that normally meet at the Salvation Army.
“We’re still a ministry, so we’ve had to be creative on how we still minister to people,” Womack said. “Last week was the first time I’ve done a sermon live on our church’s Facebook page.”
All the shelters are asking for help with sanitation supplies and person-protective equipment.
Womack said his shelter is asking for any help people can give, whether that’s a person volunteering time to be a monitor at the shelter, restaurants donating their extra food, or businesses giving cleaning and sanitizing supplies.
Anyone who can help is asked to call 927-1353 between 9 a.m. and noon, or between 12:30 and 2:30 p.m.
“If we don’t answer, please leave a message and we’ll call you back,” Womack said. “We are feeling a burden and we need your help.”
Hawkins said people can find information on how to donate, or buy items off their Amazon Wishlist, on the ESS website, www.ess berrien.org.
“We’re trying to keep calm,” she said. “This is really big, and people are really fearful. We’ve been trying to keep the moral up. We will continue to support our staff and the clients while we go through this.”
Vidt said in the next few weeks, the SWMCAA will announce a big giveaway to families in need, but for now, they need cleaning and safety supplies.
“We’ve not been able to get a handle on any of those supplies,” Vidt said. “We need everything.”
She said their offices are taking phone calls and inquires on how to help are welcome by calling 925-9077.
Volunteers for homeless shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens are exempt from Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive “stay at home” order issued Monday.