MOUNT VERNON — After the COVID-19 pandemic forced The Winter Sanctuary Emergency Homeless Shelter to close one month earlier than usual, Operation Manager Joe Springer said advocates have continued to work with shelter guests to develop short-term remedies and long-term solutions amidst ongoing challenges.
Between March and April, Springer reported 10 guests have found independent housing, 10 have moved in with family or friends, one has moved into a sober living home and six are being temporarily housed at a motel. Overall, the shelter had housed 107 individuals (64 men; 43 women) over five months before it closed early this year April 1.
The rapid rehousing effort was supported by a $5,000 emergency grant from the Knox County Foundation.
The funding goes toward transportation, motel stays, cleaning supplies, PPE and food for shelter guests who were unable to secure affordable housing by the end of the season, according to Springer.
“I’m happy — not happy that the shelter had to close early — but that by the end of the season, no one has to resort to living on the streets,” Springer said.
Moving forward, Springer shared that a long-term goal for the shelter is to develop the space for individual rooms. This will give The Winter Sanctuary the capacity to isolate guests and operate in situations like a public health crisis. It will also allow the shelter to house families, which it cannot currently do with communal housing (shelter guests must be over the age of 18).
To achieve this goal requires not only financial support but volunteer support as well. Those who would like to donate or volunteer can reach Springer at 740-392-9277 or by mail at P.O. Box 421, Mount Vernon, OH 43050. The shelter also posts specific needs as they arise on Facebook.
The shelter’s early closure reflects a common challenge among nonprofits to maintain operations during the COVID-19 crisis. It also highlights the struggle to minimize the impact that necessary service restrictions have had on populations in need.
As reported by the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO), over 85 percent of the state’s homeless shelters and programs cannot isolate and quarantine clients who show symptoms of COVID-19; 65 percent have had to cut back services due to reduced staffing and volunteer availability during the pandemic.
Winter Sanctuary houses its guests in one open room and has no way to practice social distancing nor isolate individuals who are ill. Many guests and volunteers are also over the age of 60 and/or have other health conditions, putting them at higher risks of COVID-19 complications.
After a discussion with Knox Public Health Health Commissioner Julie Miller, it was decided in March that the shelter will close early for everyone’s health and safety.
The Winter Sanctuary is not the only homeless service provider that has to restrict hours or services due to the pandemic. Other community resources such as Kno-Ho-Co and Knox Metropolitan Housing that the shelter typically connects its guests with have also had to limit their operations and in-person appointments, all of which makes acquiring resources more difficult for the homeless population.
The pandemic economy also aggravated underlying issues that lead to homelessness such as unemployment and the lack of affordable housing.
The Winter Sanctuary recently worked with a guest who was laid off from his job due to the COVID-19 economic slowdown, Springer said. This is by no means an isolated incident. The unemployment rate in Knox County is currently estimated to be around 10 percent. Over 1,800 county residents have filed for unemployment in March, compared to approximately 100 in February, according to a recent report from Knox County Director of Job and Family Services Matthew Kurtz.
Affordable housing options are also scarce right now due to the eviction moratorium, Springer said. Though the moratorium, which has temporarily suspended evictions, is aimed at preventing new homelessness, he said it also means that no apartments are opening up. Landlords may also be reluctant to accept new tenants at this time when future rent payments are more uncertain, even if a tenant could come up with the security deposit and first month’s rent.
“There’s always been a lack of affordable housing, it’s just taken to the next level,” Springer noted.
The shelter advocate is additionally bracing for after the eviction suspension is lifted when the county could see a new wave of homelessness.
Another long-term goal besides individual rooms is to develop a year-round emergency homeless shelter, Springer said.
Right now, individuals and advocates appear to be persevering and confronting challenges in these extraordinary times. Of the six guests temporarily housed in motel rooms, one has recently found apartment housing, Springer reported.
The Winter Sanctuary partners with Southeastern Ohio Legal Services (SEOLS) to assist people in need of legal housing counsel.
Those who require immediate assistance can call SEOLS client intake at 833-288-2936 or the 211 hotline to be connected to resources.