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How One Service Organization Responded to COVID-19

June 11, 2020

by Carla Miklos
Executive Director, Operation Hope

When I first heard about the COVID-19 pandemic and its potential scope, I knew I had to figure out a way to keep my staff safe, continue the much needed services Operation Hope provides for the homeless population in Fairfield County, and do it in a way that was cohesive with what the community had come to expect from us. I really had to stop, think and try not to be afraid so I could figure out a way how we could balance those three things.

Carla MiklosWe looked at our staffing model, devised a high school-like plan of an A/B week set-up: half the staff would be in M-W-F, the other half T-Th, then reversed, and we created teams and job sharing to cover all our programs. With staffing in place, we implemented safety measures for the community kitchens where our guests would eat, and like everyone else in the state placed 6’ markers on the floors and then spread out the chairs and tables and created a system where we didn’t serve from common trays but instead filled plates for people to pick up, 3 people at a time, so no one got too close in any one space.

Most critical were the people who were still outside; outside because they were transients or outside by choice; either way, we knew they were in danger and that we needed to protect them. Their transient nature made them vulnerable to catching the virus and more likely to spread the virus since they were frequently in close quarters. We were very lucky in Fairfield County that we all work very closely together across the county and here within Bridgeport, making it easy to collectively recognize the need to establish an overflow shelter that would respect the newly established social distancing guidelines. The value of collaboration and established relationships quickly became apparent: I put out a call out to my current and former staff and they in turn did the same. We staffed this overflow shelter and from there we started making a plan that dovetailed nicely with the Governor’s initiative to move people into hotels. We then assessed who was in the community, how many people we thought we could work with safely and got ourselves ready for the next step. That was an undertaking - thank goodness we have such great outreach teams here and have built good rapport with a lot of the people who are out on the street. Word was put out to other people and we were able to quickly create a central point for contact, get people off the street and start assessing what we should do next.

Education was key - the people who were out on the street really didn’t know about the pandemic; they didn’t understand that it was that serious, that they could get sick, that people were dying. Because they weren’t watching television, not reading the newspapers, they were out of the loop, and yet here they were part of the group of people at highest risk and at the same time pretty much unaware of how vulnerable they really were. So our job became to educate them, guide them and encourage them to start gloving up, masking up and trying to be safe. We also tried to show they could trust us and come along with us so we could get them off the street to somewhere safe.

The education process wasn’t all that easy because we were already behind the curve since most of them hadn’t heard of COVID-19, let alone the pandemic, so we all kept telling them this is what’s happening - this is like the flu, but this is killing people, it’s dangerous and the only way to protect yourselves is to wear masks and stay 6 feet away from people. We would leave COVID-19 virus fact sheets out in places where they’d congregate. We’d say this is why we want you to come in – if you’re willing – to this overflow shelter where we can keep you 6 feet away from others and help you figure out what the next step will be and work on trying to get you housed. It was education, education, education, but it didn’t hurt that we were able to feed them or that March happened to be a pretty rainy month. It was complicated at first – like explaining no sharing of cigarettes. It took a while for them to understand that things like that might actually kill them and that touching someone might actually be dangerous, but once they realize we were helping them, they tended to trust.  Our staff was having the same kind of frank conversations we were having with our kids or with our parents, but in this case it was with people who weren’t connected in the same way we are – they just weren’t getting the same information out on the street, and even with that, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Word wasn’t out that COVID-19 is an unbiased disease – it will kill anyone if it gets a chance.

Shelters are never a solution – they’re a holding place, a temporary stop gap. Once we moved people to the hotel and once we got everybody accounted for, it gave us the opportunity to check against our data tracking to get answers to questions like are these people known to the system, have they been in the system for a long time, and what can we gather from other service providers who might have worked with them so that we could start making very planful housing plans for what will happen following the temporary hotel sheltering.

While we were thinking about where we would go from there to find more permanent housing for our homeless population, the Fairfield community stepped in to help Operation Hope. Like everywhere else, most businesses in the community, including the restaurant community which had really become a major economic driver in the area, were now all closing. Fortunately for all of us, a generous business owner, who has been helpful to us over the years in so many ways, stepped in with a brilliant idea. Since his liquor store was considered an essential business and was now especially profitable, he chose to  help local restaurants stay open and help employees keep their jobs by buying lunches and dinners from them and in turn donating those lunches and dinners to feed the homeless.  It was an amazing partnership between the business community (those who were struggling and those who were doing well) and Operation Hope and the people we serve; the perfect trifecta – he did the very right and very generous thing - the local businesses received much needed help, and we were able to give delicious food to the increasing number of people in need.

The ripple effect was incredible – neighbors started donating to our food pantry, holding food drives or cooking dinners at home and dropping them off for us to serve, or making bag lunches for us to take up to the hotel. It became an opportunity for a community that was under so much stress and so much fear to feel like they were doing something to contribute to raising the level of positivity. I appreciated even more the incredible efforts of my staff as well as the value of collaborations and the relationships we’ve built over the years in Fairfield County- both in our sub-regions and across the county - which are critical to the work we do to serve the homeless population.

The real difference between us and the people that we serve is that we have a network – a safety net – thanks to our experiences.  If you or I had the same things happen to us that happen to Operation Hope’s clients - if we were to become a drug addict or an alcoholic, mentally ill, or destitute or dirty, argumentative or just troublesome in some way, we know that somebody still loves us enough to pick us up, bring us to the hospital or let us stay until we get our act together just because they care about us. Our clients either never had the opportunities to build a network of support, or for whatever reason have burned through it. That’s why homeless service providers are critical - we are the substitute network – we are their substitute safety net. In times like this, we are even more important, because there are no other safety nets. They’re not going to be able to sleep at the train station; it’s closed. They’re not going to be able to hang out at the library; it’s closed. Nope, can’t beg for change outside a restaurant; it’s closed.

This pandemic changed everything and I think it made everyone become a little more realistic about the problem and about the solutions. They aren’t perfect solutions, but with time, they can create a lot of stability.  I had a sign in my shelter that says “give me a place to stand and I can move the world.” I think housing stability is the best place to start.