I landed at MSP’s Terminal 2 at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11. I had been keeping up with the news while out of town, reading articles and emails when I could get Wi-Fi. One stood out to me: “I’m scared. What are we going to do about COVID-19?”

Nothing has been the same for the last six weeks.

On March 12 I started looking for resources to help me create a Pandemic Preparedness Plan specifically for a homeless shelter. What did I learn? They don’t exist. Instead, I pieced together various suggestions from what I’d found and, when finally, the Minnesota Department of Health produced their Interim Guidance For Homeless Shelter Providers, what we had created at Stepping Stone thankfully mirrored the state’s guidance about 95%.

The following week we decided to allow only staff and residents into the shelter, which meant we no longer could allow volunteers to work or give of their time to serve our residents a meal. This resulted in losing 90% of our Donate A Dinner program participants, since making a meal on limited trips to the grocery store with relatively empty shelves is challenging. Those still able to create a meal for 66 people and provide us with this gift now deliver the meal in disposable containers to our front door — no need to come into the shelter.

Operating with a staff reduced in the shelter by 80% and the remainder working from home, we knew in this extreme time, we needed to ensure stability, continuity and reliability for everyone. During the last two weeks of March we implemented our pandemic plan, which included daily conversations with Anoka County Human Services, Anoka County Public Health and the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services. The message of, “We’re all in this together,” though not specifically said, has absolutely been felt.

When Gov. Tim Walz instituted the stay-at-home order, we restricted the residents to leaving the building twice each day for two hours each time, and only for doctor’s appointments or exercise, and at the same time we removed limitations on access to TV, gaming systems and computers. Residents, for the most part, have used this time respectfully and enjoyed their expanded freedom throughout the shelter.

The immense toll of being alone for those who suffer from mental illness was one consequence of quarantine we did not foresee. Four individuals presented a fever within a few days of each other and were placed in isolation. When their ability to control and maintain their mental health abruptly and completely stopped because of this situation, one woman started hallucinating, hearing voices and becoming paranoid. Though isolation is beneficial for the health of the shelter community, it is cruel and inhumane for the individual who is isolated. We changed our pandemic plan so the individual could receive support while still benefiting other staff and residents with immediate testing, transportation to get testing and activities to occupy their time while in isolation, such as puzzles, TV and coloring books.

At the beginning of April, Anoka County Human Services provided a tremendous opportunity to move half our residents to a local motel. Within three days, we figured out the logistics of relocating 30 people, potentially increasing our capacity at the motel for an additional 23 residents, and successfully transitioning them. The program continues to run very smoothly.

My hope is this virus gives us an understanding and acceptance that things in life happen to us that we have zero control over. Nobody is excluded and nobody is the exception, regardless of skin color or bank account balance. We have over 400 people on our waiting list, down by three who just moved to what we hope will be their forever home. The projections increase that number dramatically in the coming months.

Some of the lessons we’ve learned feel harsh when we say them out loud, like how the “Stay At Home” rallying cry rings in the ears of a person with a different experience of “home.” For those without a home, it’s just a cruel reminder. For those where home is a scary, dangerous place, the thought of staying there causes untold pain. Other lessons reinforce how little control we thought we had over our lives. While many of us speak of our “options” and “freedoms” being removed, those experiencing homelessness experience this every hour of every day. We also learned there’s no such thing as a “stable job” as, through no fault of our own, income and predictability just got ripped out from under us.

We realize nonprofits are more important than ever. We fill the gaps, plug the holes, provide the missing pieces. But we can forget the phrase, “getting back to normal.” Our jobs just became exponentially more difficult as the way we earn revenue just tipped upside down while the extreme need and dependency on our programs just exploded. COVID-19 caught us all off guard.

Julie Jeppson is the executive director of Stepping Stone Emergency Housing. This piece is part of a series in partnership with the Anoka County Historical Society documenting aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic for future generations.

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