By Anna Phillips | June 12, 2020 at 7:22 PM EDT – Updated June 12 at 7:22 PM
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – More than $75,000 has gone into housing members of the homeless population over the first few months of COVID-19′s presence in southeastern North Carolina.
A joint ‘homeless initiative’ spearheaded by the Tri-County Homeless Interagency Council, the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County and United Way alongside dozens of other local agencies, raised the money to launch a “Healthy Hotels” program which allowed some homeless residents to be placed in hotels as facilities were decompressed to allow for proper social distancing and quarantine as needed.
On Friday, New Hanover County health officials confirmed four cases of COVID-19 among the homeless population at the Salvation Army shelter in downtown Wilmington and staff who work there.
There have been no cases linked to the Good Shepherd Center.
United Way CEO Tommy Taylor says that’s less than one percent of the population.
A tent previously set up outside the Salvation Army facility to provide more sheltering space has been taken down.
“We have people that come in and out all the time going to work just like you or I,” said Major Mark Craddock. “We do temperature checks making sure everyone’s okay who comes in. The basic rule of thumb is from our partners from the health department—as long as we see that we’re not symptomatic, we keep going now that we have the testing complete.”
Major Craddock says the health department tested everyone in the shelter.
Maegan Zielinksi, of the Tri-County I.A.C. leads a weekly task force meeting of those involved in the Homeless Initiative.
The task force sets policies and procedures for adapting homeless shelter protocol and guidance with the help of the health department, which included a public health nurse performing daily wellness checks at the “Healthy Hotel.”
“We didn’t know what this was going to be when it got here because it’s new. We’re still figuring it out—we as a nation, we as a world are still trying to get our brains wrapped around COVID-19 and I just think especially here in the county we’ve got great measures in place and we’re just working really hard to do everything we can to keep folks safe,” said Carla Turner of the public health department.
At this time, the ‘Health Hotels’ program is winding down. More than 50 people who were housed through it have found alternate, more permanent housing.
“We were able to help tremendously prevent the outbreaks from increasing dramatically,” said Tommy Taylor.
Katrina Knight, at the Good Shepherd Center, says they’re looking at a record-breaking year.
“We should be having a harder time than ever rehousing folks right now, given the climate that we’re all working within and yet, while it is very challenging and folks do have the added challenge of this pandemic on top of everything else and the housing crisis and their existing stress, by June 30th we will have re-housed a record number of people this year, well over 300,” Knight said.
While Knight says it does feel like a small victory, you won’t find her singing a victory tune. She carries the worry that it could all change.
“It’s difficult to plan for something that is so open-ended,” she said. “A hurricane—you know when its done and over and you know when recovery has begun and there’s some light at the end of the tunnel, even if it seems far away.”
She also feels a weight from being unable to operate at full capacity while knowing there are people in need of help.
Looking forward, Zielinski says they’re preparing for hurricane season and further sheltering needs that could arise.
“This is a good model for us, maybe we can apply it for hurricane preparedness, or if COVID strikes again—which I hope it doesn’t—but it’s been a really good learning experience for us as a community,” Zielinksi said. “It’s been a good model to have a good foundation. We have a lot of good data coming through the community now and we’re excited to share that with folks and to show all of the success that we’ve had during this really crazy time.”
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