Wisconsin (March 24, 2020) – As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin continues to rise, and the state government takes more extreme measures to contain the spread, food pantries and shelters around Wisconsin are balancing their mission with efforts to keep people healthy.
Maureen Atwell, executive director of Hebron Housing Services, which operates three homeless shelters in Waukesha, said demand is high, and the men’s shelter is now open 24 hours a day, at increased capacity.
With the expanded hours and several staff members staying home from work to protect family members with health problems, it’s been hard to keep shelters staffed, Atwell said.
“Right now, we’re good, because we’ve got me 24/7 if I need to be,” she said. “But I am very worried about what’s going to happen when the pandemic really hits, and people start getting sick. Our guests start getting sick, our employees start getting sick, heaven forbid I get sick.”
Atwell is there 24/7 because she’s living in the basement of one Hebron shelter — in part because of health issues in her own family, and in part to fill any gaps in staffing. She said if there’s no staff member in the house, they’d have to shut down.
Atwell said there’s no plan yet for what might happen if people do start getting sick. Guests can’t self-isolate in shelters where they share bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens, but it goes against Hebron’s mission to kick someone out, Atwell said.
“I don’t even think it protects us, because once somebody’s sick, they’ve already been in the house,” she said.
Both Atwell and Hetti Brown, executive director of the poverty-fighting nonprofit Couleecap, said they’re already seeing a new category of people seeking help: those experiencing homelessness who used to be able to avoid shelters by staying with relatives and friends.
“Maybe they were staying with friends, but because now those friends may be fearful of virus transmission, they’re asking people to find other places to stay,” Brown said.
Couleecap operates in La Crosse and some surrounding counties. There are no emergency shelters in the area outside the city of La Crosse, Brown said, so people in rural areas might have to look for help in the city, distancing themselves from their jobs and support systems.
Several La Crosse organizations have teamed up to open an additional emergency shelter. Local shelters will also expand their hours, and people looking for help will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms, according to a press release.
Couleecap has also expanded hours at its Sparta and Prairie du Chien food pantries. Many food pantries around the state, including Couleecap’s, have turned into drive-thrus to limit contact between people.
Brown said the pantries could get busier as people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic get their last paycheck.
“Depending on how long they’ll be unemployed, we could see huge spikes in the visitors to our food pantries, even though it may still be a little light this week,” Brown said.
Some organizations are already reporting donation shortages. Atwell of Hebron Housing Services said cash donations are down, and their shelters need household items like garbage bags and paper towels.
At New Day Advocacy Center, a sexual assault and domestic violence shelter in Ashland, staff clean surfaces every two hours, and everyone who enters the building is required to wash their hands, said executive director Kathy Roper.
The center plans to start making its own hand sanitizer, Roper said, because it and other important disinfecting supplies have been hard to find.
“I mean, I’ve gone out myself a couple times to look and see if deliveries had been made, and sometimes there’s just nothing at all, so that has been our biggest challenge,” she said.
“We all are dedicated to continuing to provide services to people that need us, in modified ways that is safe for both them and us,” Roper said.
You can find a list of important services across Wisconsin, as well as ways you can help, here.