DC service organizations to stay open amid coronavirus-related closures

A group of elected officials standing behind a podium at a press conference.

Mayor Muriel Bowser joins city officials for a March 13 press briefing on the latest COVID-19 data and response plans. Screenshot courtesy of the Executive Office of the Mayor

As cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continue to be detected across the District, at least 25 community service organizations that provide essential services to D.C.’s homeless population have said they plan on staying open.

There have been 22 confirmed COVID-19 cases in D.C. as of Monday, March 16, prompting Mayor Muriel Bowser to declare a state of emergency on March 11 and announce the closure of all public schools and libraries for at least two weeks, starting March 16. Metro is planning on reducing transit service starting the same day. While worst-case projections for the spread of the disease in the U.S. are dire, public health officials agree efforts to slow transmission by reducing contact with others and canceling public gatherings can make a huge difference. 

Several organizations serving the homeless community told Street Sense Media they had begun implementing such “social distancing” practices, as recommended by the D.C. Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The measures include reducing or canceling volunteer shifts, limiting staff-to-visitor contact and making meals takeout-only.

At Miriam’s Kitchen in Foggy Bottom, staff members are restructuring programs in a way that limits large gatherings of people in enclosed spaces but still maintains “a continuity of services,” CEO and President Scott Schenkelberg said. 

To that end, guests may no longer use the dining room and are instead receiving carry-out containers during daily breakfast and dinner service. As of Thursday, March 12, the kitchen is adjusting its hours, serving breakfast from 7 to 8 a.m and dinner from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., which is a half-hour reduction in morning service.

The organization is canceling all volunteer shifts, which will mean losing between 12 to 15 volunteers per food service. That will not affect the quantity of food the kitchen is able to provide, but will instead mean “simplifying the menu” and reducing the “variety and complexity of dishes,” Schenkelberg said.

Miriam’s is also preparing to shift all of its operations outdoors to a courtyard adjoining the church building it is based in. The courtyard will include a trailer with bathrooms and tents for food service and case management, and is expected to open on Monday, March 16, Schenkelberg said.

On any given day, Miriam’s Kitchen welcomes approximately 400 visitors, which includes guests, staff members and volunteers, he said. Since Thursday, when the limited hours first went into effect, Schenkelberg estimated that number had fallen to roughly 200 visitors per day. 

Over the coming weeks, Miriam’s Kitchen could see up to a 50% reduction in staff capacity across all of its programs, Schenkelberg said. In cutting its hours of meal service, Schenkelberg estimated the kitchen may have missed out on serving up to 50 additional customers on Friday morning.

“That’s why we were so reluctant to go to this new model that we knew might be missing people,” Schenkelberg said. “We’re very much aware that this isn’t ideal by any stretch of the imagination.”

[Opinion: In public health emergency, housing is (still) healthcare]

The Father McKenna Center in Northwest D.C., which provides services to men to aid them on their “journey through homelessness” also has no plans to close but is taking preventative measures. CEO and President Kim Cox said that the center will remain open unless unforeseen circumstances occur.

“If the men in the shelters are quarantined in place, then we would no longer have any clients — that would be the only situation, as far as I can tell, that we would close,” Cox said. “If my entire staff comes down with coronavirus, then I would have to close, but I don’t anticipate that being a problem.”

Cox said that between 75 and 90 people pass through the center on a daily basis and that they haven’t seen a dropoff in the number of men in their program since the arrival of COVID-19. 

The center has taken extra precautions with sanitation, wiping down door handles and water fountains at least twice a day in accordance with CDC guidelines, among other preventative measures. Cox said the center has several volunteers who are over 80 years old, all of whom have been told not to come in.

As for the center’s staff members, Cox said that each desk has hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes and that the focus has been on educating employees about COVID-19.

“We’ve been really high on education with the staff in terms of what are the symptoms of the coronavirus so that they themselves will stay home or if they are living with someone who starts to be symptomatic that they know what to do and to self-isolate,” Cox said.

The center usually welcomes students from Gonzaga College High School two days per week to help serve lunch and work in the pantry, but due to the school’s closure to minimize potential spread of the virus, that program has been suspended until at least April 14. In the same vein, the Father McKenna Center had three “immersion trips” planned where students from universities would sleep in the center and work with different programs. Two of them have canceled.

Another local nonprofit, Martha’s Table, announced on Friday it will continue providing groceries, pre-packaged meals and other essential resources at its Northwest and Southeast D.C., locations. The organization’s education centers at those locations will be closed from March 17 until April 3.

“We are doubling down on our mission to support strong children, strong families, and strong communities,” President and CEO Kim R. Ford said. “Many of our neighbors will face financial challenges as our local economy suffers from the outbreak. Next week, Martha’s Table will roll out an unprecedented level of support for our families.”

Those measures will include providing every family with a child enrolled in a Martha’s Table education center with a weekly stipend as well as gift cards to grocery stores or food delivery services worth $15 per day during the period the centers are closed. The weekly stipends will “put more than $300,000 directly in the hands of local families,” Ford said.

Not all organizations have been able to sustain operations, however, and churches in particular have had to shut down in order to prevent community spread. 

After deliberating on its situation throughout the week, Foundry United Methodist Church announced Thursday it would be “temporarily closing” its building to the public until March 25. The closure came a day after hundreds of Episcopal churches across D.C., Maryland and Virginia suspended worship services or closed altogether until March 25.

Reverend Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, the senior pastor at Foundry, said the decision was “truly unprecedented” and a “very difficult” one to make. By Thursday, it had become clear that keeping the church open was not going to be a safe option, she said.

In the interim, regular Sunday service will be streamed online on Facebook and the Foundry website. The church’s social justice ministry, which includes cooking and feeding programs, will continue to function alongside its community partners, Gaines-Cirelli said.

Street Sense Media surveyed the 34 service providers listed in the low-barrier resource guide featured in each edition of our bi-weekly publication. Empty rows indicate a pending response. Partial information gathered from other sources has also been added.

Last updated: March 17

Collected by Avi Bajpai and Ben Cooper

Issues |Community|COVID-19|Education|Housing|Hunger|Shelters

Region |Washington DC

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