Homeless shelters struggle to meet needs of guests during pandemic


Volunteers clean the Day by Day Warming Shelter in Oshkosh. Photo courtesy Day by Day Facebook

Joseph Schulz, Managing Editor

Local homeless shelters, forced to limit their use of volunteers to enforce social distancing, are struggling to meet the needs of their guests, who are dealing with heightened instability now that public spaces have been closed in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

“With public spaces closing, businesses restricted and local charities unable to bend any further, the opportunities for resources and support are disappearing every day,” local homeless people said in an open letter to the community.

The Day by Day Warming Shelter sent the letter, signed by “The Homeless of Oshkosh,” to local media outlets to raise awareness for the circumstances facing the homeless community.

“We are lacking basic shelter during the day, access to resources to find aid and support, and compassion and humanity from our community,” the letter said. “We hope that our message is heard because we are not sure how much longer we can ask.”

Local homeless shelters are doing what they can, but the virus has caused them to lose personnel.

At the Day by Day Warming Shelter on High Avenue, Executive Director Matt Johnson said it had to suspend all volunteers from coming into the shelter to reduce the risk of someone bringing the virus into the facility.

Those volunteers would typically assist the staff in general shelter operations in the morning and evening, he said.

Beyond losing volunteers, the shelter has also lost staff. Some were college students who had to leave because UW Oshkosh sent students home, some left because of a lack of childcare and others left because they were in contact with people potentially infected with COVID-19, Johnson said. \

“Our staff go through about 40 hours of training each season to work with our guests, and unfortunately that’s not a staff that we can replace fairly quickly,” he said.

Even with a limited staff, Day by Day continues to serve the homeless population as best it can, giving shelter from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. every day, Johnson noted.

At 6 p.m. daily, the shelter randomly hands out poker chips to the people waiting in line; 25 of those chips are marked. Those who receive a marked chip can spend the night in the shelter.

The shelter only has 25 beds available, and the lottery system is “the fairest possible solution available,” Johnson said.

As best it can, Day by Day has utilized social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the facility, he added.

Day by Day has placed beds in its gym space to ensure 6 feet of space between beds, while eating spaces and social spaces are also spaced 6 feet apart, he said.

The shelter also has hand sanitizer throughout the facility for both the guests and shelter staff, Johnson said. He added that the staff uses gloves when serving meals and providing other services.

For Johnson, it’s essential to keep the shelter open because it’s one of the few resources left for the city’s homeless.

“We are the only resource that some of our guests have available to them for a form of immediate shelter,” he said. “I wish that we could be operational 24 hours a day.”

Oshkosh Mayor Lori Palmeri said the city has had conversations with the Day by Day Warming Shelter in recent weeks, and that the shelter has been in contact with the city’s emergency operations center.

The city has given the shelter permission to stay open beyond its normal closing date of April 15, but “there’s only so much the city can do,” Palmeri said.

Johnson would ideally like to keep the shelter open beyond April 15, but at this point, he said Day by Day just doesn’t have enough staff.

“At this point, we are viewing it as something that’s too far in the distance to even consider because our staffing is changing on a daily basis,” Johnson said.

To learn more about how to help the Day by Day Warming Shelter, call 920-203-4536 or visit warmingshelter.com/wish-list-immediate-needs.

An option that’s open year-round is Father Carr’s Place 2B on North Koeller Street, which has one shelter for men and another for women and children.

Those seeking shelter must fill out an application, have a valid form of ID and fill out a background check. The staff at Father Carr’s then review the application and decide based on the results of the background check.

Father Carr’s Executive Director John Nieman said the facility looks at every case individually to ensure the safety of its staff, volunteers and residents.

He said the facility normally houses about 20 people, but it varies depending on the day and the number of volunteers available.

Despite the increased need for shelter among the homeless population, Nieman said Father Carr’s doesn’t currently have plans to relax its application process.

“The rules are there for a reason, like no smoking, no drinking, things like that,” he said. “We only have two paid staff here, so if two of our volunteers got sick or did not feel like coming in because of their immune system, we wouldn’t have the manpower.”

Palmeri said Father Carr’s has a reputation for having strict requirements.

“It seems to me that this has been a chronic barrier,” she said. “Father Carr’s, I believe, was reported to only be at [about] 40% capacity.”

Nieman said the pandemic has limited Father Carr’s as many of its volunteers are elderly, and those over 65 or with immune disorders have been advised to stay home.

Because the shelter has rooms similar to a hotel, staff and volunteers ensure social distance is maintained in “shared spaces,” such as the dining rooms, the laundry room and family lounge, he said.

The shelter has also switched to all paper products during meals to ensure that germs aren’t spread through dishes, he added.

In terms of the facility’s Friday food pantry, volunteers are now directing traffic and loading groceries into people’s cars to reduce close contact, Nieman said.

“There are people out there in need of food, and there are people that need a place to stay,” he said. “I think it’s important for agencies such as Day by Day, such as our agency, to be open as much as possible so we can care for all the needs.”

To learn more about volunteer opportunities at Father Carr’s Place 2B, call 920-231-2378 or visit fathercarrs.org/volunteer-2.

Another organization working to help the homeless population in the Fox Valley is Pillars Inc., a nonprofit that formed in 2018.

To address the increased need for shelter spurred by the pandemic, Pillars has opened its adult shelter on College Avenue in Appleton 24 hours a day, according to Donor Engagement Manager Ryne Lodl.

Beyond staffing the adult shelter 24/7, Pillars offers case management services, recovery coaches, support specialists and mental health services, Lodl said.

Many of the organization’s volunteers are over 65 and have been asked to stay home, he said.

To compensate for the lack of volunteers, staff members have taken over many of the responsibilities that volunteers would generally have done, such as serving meals and front desk help, he added.

The maximum capacity in the adult shelter is about 65 people, but to ensure social distance it’s now only housing about 50 people at a time, Lodl said.

Lodl believes homeless shelters in the Fox Valley must remain open throughout the pandemic because they serve an especially vulnerable population.

“As long as we can continue to provide services and provide a place for them to stay, a safe shelter, we believe it’s essential,” he said. “By providing these services, we’re continuing to monitor and take care of a very vulnerable population in our community.”

To learn more about how to help Pillars Inc., call 920-734-9192 or visit pillarsinc.org/get-involved.