The Church of the Epiphany will soon be opening up its Parish Hall and Mission Center as a low-barrier shelter space through at least July. The space will be able to host up to 35 individuals and will be open daily from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the District of Columbia saw a rapid spread of the virus throughout all communities, particularly in congregate shelters, in which common spaces are shared and social distancing is a challenge. Despite health concerns, congregate shelters have been “packed,” according to the church’s rector, Rev. Glenna Huber. At an April 23 briefing, D.C. Department of Human Services officials said 73% of available beds for men and 75% of available beds for women were being consistently used. While the city has leased four hotels to provide roughly 800 people with non-congregate beds, the need persists for more safe spaces to socially distance.
[Disclaimer: Street Sense Media also rents office space from the church]
The Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District (BID), a nonprofit organization that provides capital improvements and resources for downtown D.C. and operates the city’s downtown day services center, approached Epiphany in late February and early March for shelter space. They had contacted five downtown-area churches to help with the overflow, according to Huber. “Shelter space was really at a premium, and they had run out,” she said.
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The BID worked with the Department of Human Services throughout March to work out logistics to open the shelter in April. Huber said that things are “currently on hold because of some funding issues” with the city and that the church will welcome guests on May 10. Given the size of the rooms, guests will be able to safely distance themselves at least six feet apart.
At the beginning of the month, DHS again pushed back the start date for shelter operations, which are now anticipated to begin Monday, May 17.
The District’s “hypothermia season” ended on March 31, which usually means shelter capacities change as recreation centers that serve as overnight shelters during the winter to guarantee D.C.’s legal right to shelter on cold nights will no longer be used for this purpose.
Many rec centers have been used as emergency shelters since the start of the pandemic, defying the typical November – March hypothermia season. As of April, the Salvation Army and Kennedy Recreation Center are still operating as emergency shelter spaces. However, Mayor Bowser announced that indoor recreation centers can reopen at 50% capacity starting May 1. As the weather warms, more people receive the vaccine, and COVID-19 restrictions continue to ease up, these facilities may become more in demand.
[Read more: ANC calls on DHS to improve hypothermia season shelter accommodations]
Any form of congregate shelter will continue to pose a risk. A new MIT study published on April 27 found that the time spent in a shared space and the quality of air ventilation and filtration — not distancing by six feet — is what determines the likelihood of transmitting the virus through respiratory droplets exhaled by an infected person. (This data does not include larger droplets involved in coughing or sneezing, and the chance of transmission was still drastically reduced by wearing masks.) Distance does matter, but the study showed the risk is the same at six feet that it is as far as 60 feet away when air is shared in an enclosed space.
The Department of Human Services has been making vaccines available to shelter residents since the beginning of February and to unsheltered people via pop-up clinics since the end of March.
Epiphany has long provided outreach services for the District’s homeless community through providing meals and necessities at its Sunday “Welcome Table,” holding weekly sessions on empowering the homeless community, and hosting a Street Church event at Franklin Park on Tuesdays. “It’s just part of our mission and our understanding of the gospel message to love your neighbor as yourself,” Huber said, “In downtown D.C., a large group of our neighbors are without shelter. So how could we not respond to that?”
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While the shelter is guaranteed to be open through July, Epiphany has kept open the possibility of running the shelter for longer. However, Huber said, the church hopes that in this budget cycle, Mayor Bowser will prioritize housing and shelter so that this space “doesn’t become a necessity.”
This article has been updated to include the new expected start date for shelter operations at Epiphany.