Update from March 17, 2020
There is no way to sugar coat this, things are very tough right now.
We are grateful to the hundreds of employees who have worked quickly and diligently to respond to this public health emergency with compassion, flexibility, forbearance, and a total dedication to ensuring safety for our clients, co-workers and partners. We’ve received many messages and gestures of support from our community as well, which is helping us get through this difficult time.
DESC is one of the largest providers of congregate shelter beds for people living homeless in Washington State. With help from our City and County partners, we have been able to successfully meet the CDC guidelines for social-distancing throughout our shelter programs. We’ve maintained the same daily availability of 508 beds. We relocated 150 beds to the Exhibition Hall at Seattle Center, and are purchasing motel stays for 20 clients. We’ve also opened all locations and expanded meal service to allow clients to stay safely inside 24/7.
To ensure the safety and health of everyone in our community, we’ve curtailed many of our routine services and have focused in on providing essential activities. We’ve prohibited almost all visitors to our sites, suspended our employment support services, and focused all physical and behavioral health care on essential health needs. We are supporting our tenants in permanent supportive housing in seriously limiting their social interactions and gatherings.
Our 35-person medical team, typically focused on psychiatric care, has prioritized assessing and addressing physical health issues, in an effort to keep all clients away from hospitals and other health clinics unless absolutely necessary. Our behavioral health teams are prioritizing in-person crisis response care and medication support for clients. They are conducting more routine case management visits via telephone or video chat.
Our behavioral health Drop-In Center in Pioneer Square serves a critical need for people living with serious mental illnesses who are homeless. It pains us to have dramatically cut down the number of people who can be served in that space each day. This comes at the same time as closures of libraries and community centers around town. Our street outreach efforts continue, and staff report heightened concern and confusion among people living unsheltered throughout the Seattle area.
Finally, we are working to quickly scale up in-home meal options for our nearly 1,500 tenants in supportive housing, in order to limit their out-of-home trips to grocery stores, food banks and meal programs.
We don’t need to tell you that the situation is shifting rapidly, and every day brings new challenges. We are all going through this together. This crisis underscores what we already knew – DESC clients are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus, and the escalating restrictions and directives highlight the key role DESC plays for thousands of people each day in meeting their most basic safety and health needs.
As of this writing, we still don’t have a confirmed COVID-19 case among our clients or staff. It clearly is circulating across many segments of society in our region, and presumably it is just a matter of time before it hits our vulnerable clients. The work that we’ve done to date will help us respond when clients or staff members do become ill. We are prepared to sustain these efforts, but cannot do it without the help of our community.
How you can meet our most immediate needs:
1. We continue to need funds and information about available motel rooms. This is needed both for continued social distancing, and to assist unsheltered individuals our outreach teams encounter who are at high-risk or may have been exposed to COVID-19.
2. We need donations of food and hygiene items, and volunteers to help us provide increased food security for tenants who need to “socially isolate” in supportive housing. Here’s what we most need:
- Shelf-stable groceries (canned soup, canned tuna, ham or chicken, cereal or oatmeal)
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich materials
- Fruit cups or canned fruit
- Granola bars or protein bars
- Ensure or other meal replacement shakes
- Volunteers to help prepare grocery bags/lunch sacks for delivery
Please contact Steven Dillon for information about where to drop donations, or how to volunteer.
Initial Post from March 8, 2020
We wanted to share with our community the various ways DESC is taking action to limit and manage the effects of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus now circulating most significantly in the Seattle area of all places in the United States.
COVID-19 has quickly overshadowed all other issues, but thus far has not stopped any of our regular service to highly vulnerable people across all our programs. The pace of change related to COVID-19 has been rapid, so changes to anything below could occur at any time after this writing. We will work to provide occasional updates. Meanwhile, we are so grateful for the many expressions of concern and offers of help we have received from many people and organizations. We will say a bit more about what help we might be able to use later in this message.
The current situation
As of this morning, March 8th, we know of no cases of a DESC client or staff person who has developed COVID-19 illness or who has been in close enough contact with someone with COVID-19 to be considered to have been “exposed.” We are also aware that Harborview Medical Center is reporting that each person experiencing homelessness they have tested thus far for COVID-19 has been negative for the presence of the virus. So, we have not yet begun to be affected directly by COVID-19 illness. That could change at any moment. Medical problems are common among many DESC clients, and it is typical for us to serve people with cold and flu symptoms at any given time. Today is no exception, which has the potential to complicate how well we can identify people whose symptoms are due to COVID-19 rather than flu or a cold.
Public Health leaders have made clear that this virus will spread through the community, and we all need to work together to slow that spread and to provide extra protections for people who are at greater risk for severe complications if they get sick. Slowing the spread will help avoid many people from getting sick all at once, better allowing healthcare and social services systems to care for people with acute illness. Because we serve so many people who fall into the greater risk category, we are approaching this in several ways:
- Cleaning! Disinfecting and sanitizing protocols have been beefed up and are being practiced with great vigilance throughout all our facilities.
- Working out enhanced “social distancing,” which is just a public health term for reducing physical contact and proximity between people. For this we are developing plans to “decongest” some of our more crowded environments (especially shelters; more on that below) and to be able to provide support to our clients who may need to separate themselves from others by remaining in their apartments.
- Preparing for possible staffing shortages if we have staff who cannot come to work for periods of time because they are ill, have been exposed to others with COVID-19, or have underlying risk factors that necessitate they be away from large groups of people. As a general rule, the people who come to work at DESC are quite flexible by nature. This will serve us well if and when we need to change work assignments to cover roles or service sites that become short-staffed. A small portion of our staff have roles that don’t involve direct services to clients. Where possible, those staff are working remotely per Public Health recommendations.
- Closely observing the people we serve to watch out for symptoms. Our medical teams have developed protocols for all medical and non-medical staff at DESC to follow that should result in fast expert attention being brought to situations where a concern develops about a person possibly having COVID-19 illness.
- Planning with medical and other service partners. Other healthcare and social services organizations regularly contribute to the services being delivered in our many program spaces. This includes medical care delivered by Harborview, Neighborcare, and the VA, and food and meal deliveries by FareStart and OSL. All of these partners are sharing ideas and working with us to identify how to keep and, if necessary, expand such critical services as this situation develops.
- Collaborating closely with Public Health authorities and other local government agencies. Public Health-Seattle and King County, along with several departments and divisions within the City of Seattle and King County governments, have been actively convening community agencies like DESC to share information and learn about our needs. We are reaching out to them with specific ideas for adjustments we can make and for which we need their help and resources. They can’t answer every question we have, and they may not be able to implement or help with every idea we come up with, but they are always receptive and always try, and we feel fortunate to have such great public servants to partner with.
When people we serve become sick with COVID-19, those who don’t need to be hospitalized will need to isolate away from other people who have not been exposed to the virus. DESC clients who are currently homeless, approximately 1,500 people, will have to have a place to go where they can isolate. We are glad to know such environments are being created now by King County and the City of Seattle.
We also serve many people who are no longer homeless. About 1,400 people live in apartments we own or support through the private rental market, and several hundred more people who we continue to serve in our behavioral health programs live in apartments operated by other affordable housing operators. Most of our clients in those environments will naturally have less exposure to the virus in the community, and those who fall ill conceivably will be able to remain in their apartments until they no longer pose a risk to spread the virus. But they will need support while cooped up in their apartments. We are thinking through what additional services we can provide, include food/meals, to people who will stay in their apartments for extended periods.
Public Health-Seattle and King County has guidelines for sleeping quarters in homeless shelters aimed at reducing the spread of airborne contagions. Essentially, having beds at least six feet apart reduces the potential for transmission in the event someone is shedding virus (even if they don’t know it). DESC currently operates just over 500 shelter beds across six sites. The sleeping quarters in many of our locations are tight, usually with people on bunk beds close together. To achieve the Public Health recommended distances between people, we will begin tomorrow, Monday March 9th, to move out many people from existing DESC shelter locations into other spaces where people can be more spread apart. We will use space the City of Seattle is making available to us at Seattle Center, and likely place some people into motel rooms. This isn’t for anyone who is currently ill,but is simply to ensure better spatial distance between people across all our congregate shelters.
In addition to the 13 permanent supportive housing buildings and six shelters we currently operate, we also have the Crisis Solutions Center providing behavioral health care and respite to people in behavioral health crisis, three outpatient behavioral health clinic sites, and several more service programs engaging and serving clients wherever they are in the community. All of these programs are critical to continue operating and our staff in them are likely to be some of the most reliable contacts unsheltered people in the community have.
Fortunately, we have 35 doctors and nurses who work for DESC in many of these program sites, and other doctors and nurses from partner organizations who also work in DESC locations. This gives us some capacity to act quickly when signs develop of people becoming ill with COVID-19.
Altogether across two dozen sites we are serving more than 3,000 people every day through the efforts of more than 600 staff. It’s a complicated endeavor even when a new threat is not bearing down on us, like spinning plates in a hurricane. We aim to keep them spinning.
Something we are not doing
Our national Housing First Partners Conference scheduled for next week in Seattle cannot go on as planned. This would have been our fifth such conference, and the first to be in Seattle, and we had 1,100 people from around the country and beyond registered to attend. As disappointed as we are that two years of planning work won’t result in what would have been our biggest and most successful conference yet, we know that the hunger for this kind of convening is stronger than ever, and we will reschedule the conference for another time.
What help we need right now
The situation is quite fluid, as they say, so it’s hard to know exactly what help we are most going to need. First, in case you haven’t heard, wash your hands frequently! Other than that, here are a few thoughts you might consider:
- Do you know any motel operators with rooms to rent for people who aren’t sick but need to get away from more crowded settings? Let us know.
- At some point, we might need to recruit people to help us in the event of staffing shortages. Think about whether you might be interested in this.
- We may need help preparing or delivering individual meals in cases where congregate meals in our apartment buildings become difficult. Helping with delivery seems more likely to be our need than preparation, as our meal partners have capacity to help us with more meals at this time.
- Public Health and King County’s Department of Community and Human Services are under enormous pressure to manage various aspects of this developing crisis and need support from all of us. The need for these departments to coordinate with each other has never been stronger. Think good thoughts for them, and if you normally have interactions with them think about how pursuing your current needs will either support or hinder the ability of these departments to work together.
- Advocate for more COVID-19 testing in the community, particularly in underserved communities. The federal government should be able to do far more to support this than we have seen thus far in the Seattle area.
- Do you have ideas for more spaces for isolation and quarantine, should the community need expand beyond the sites currently being prepared? We can pass along information to local and state government partners.
- Help your friends and neighbors understand that people experiencing homelessness are at elevated risk for more severe illness if they develop COVID-19 illness. Imagine being ill and not having your regular bed to be in and ability to rest and recover in your own private environment. Now imagine that you have underlying medical problems that will make that illness worse. Thus far, while none of the more than 80 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Seattle area have been among unhoused individuals, some of the public discourse has singled out people experiencing homelessness as posing a COVID-19 threat to the rest of the community. The truth is our homeless neighbors need our support more than ever.
- If you need something from us and you aren’t a person we are providing services to, please consider if the issue can wait a bit while we focus most of our energy on dealing with this new crisis.
Thanks for caring about us! More later.