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Ann Arbor’s homeless population facing ‘dire situation’ amid coronavirus fears, says shelter

Clients who feel sick are currently quarantined on the building's second floor.
Clients who feel sick are currently quarantined on the building's second floor. (Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR – The Delonis Center in Ann Arbor is Washtenaw County’s only homeless shelter for adults, and during normal circumstances works on overdrive to accommodate homeless clients in need of food, shelter and warmth.

But the coronavirus pandemic and the closures and limitations on gatherings that have come with it have presented the shelter with an unprecedented challenge.

Individuals presenting symptoms of fever and other signs of COVID-19 are currently quarantined on the building’s second floor. While no clients have tested positive for coronavirus, staff is taking extra precautions to keep healthy individuals safe and distanced from those not feeling well.

The goal is to move healthy clients temporarily off-site to ensure their safety as case numbers in Michigan rise daily.

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“We’re desperate," said Shelter Association of Washtenaw County’s Director of Development, Sarah Paspal-Jasinski. “We want to help those that don’t have a place at home to be able to social distance themselves from those that are sick and we don’t have a place to send them.”

Paspal-Jasinski said members of staff are fielding calls to local organizations with unused spaces that can accommodate its clients during the night.

“We’re even calling logistics companies to explore the option of putting trailers in our parking lot,” she said.

According to a release, the temporary overnight shelters would be operated entirely by Shelter Association staff and would require health screenings for everyone entering:

“Shelter Association clients in good health would be transported to an offsite location at 8 p.m. daily. There, our organization would provide them with the mats and blankets to sleep on as well as staff to manage their use of restroom facilities, overnight sleeping arrangements and enforcing the use of only assigned area. Lights will be out by 10 p.m. Clients and staff will exit the off-site premises no later than 7 a.m. the next morning and will be driven back to the Shelter Association.”

The Delonis Center is working to enforce social distancing protocols by allowing a certain number of clients in the dining room at a time and reducing close social interaction throughout the building. Everyone who enters the building has their temperature taken and is asked a series of questions about symptoms they are currently experiencing.

Depending on their responses, they are given a mask or gloves and are required to frequently wash hands and use hand sanitizer. Those who do not follow protocol are asked to leave the premises.

Read: A glimpse inside the center fighting to end homelessness in Ann Arbor

Staff has drastically decreased, said Paspal-Jasinski, over fears of contracting the virus and all volunteer opportunities have been suspended. She estimated that between seven and 15 people are working with clients during the day, and six overnight helping to accommodate up to 145 clients who sleep at the center.

“People are terrified," said Paspal-Jasinski. “We are extremely grateful to our committed staff that rise to the occasion to help our clients in need and fully understand and support well respected staff members that have had to make the difficult decision to reduce hours or take leave of absences.”

While she said that they have facilitated as many people working from home as possible, the agency still requires people to be on site.

“We’re a human services agency," she said. “We don’t have the option to shut down operations. If we aren’t going to do it, nobody will. We’re bleeding."

Paspal-Jasinski said her heart breaks for people who can’t self-isolate due to lack of housing and for whom essential services that have reduced services, like Community Mental Health.

“You’ve already lost all safety nets when you’re homeless. You have nothing left. And just when you think it couldn’t get worse, here comes the coronavirus."

Want to help? Contact Paspal-Jasinski at paspals@washtenaw.org or 734-678-2378.

The Delonis Center is at 312 W. Huron St.

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