Homeless services adapt to shelter-in-place order, physical distancing

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While many people are dealing with boredom inside their homes, people without housing face the obstacle of finding a place to stay during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order.

Alameda County counted a homeless population of about 8,000 people in the Bay Area in January, according to Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center, or WDDC, Executive Director Leslie Berkler. With homeless shelters typically open at night, centers such as the WDDC serve women and families during the day through services including hot meals, mail, counseling, case management and access to phones and computers, Berkler said.

With the pandemic in full effect, however, Berkler said she thinks homelessness has become even more of a pressing issue.

Berkler noted that while a positive aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that many shelters are now open 24/7, allowing clients to stay inside during the day, other people remain in encampments, in their cars or in emergency shelters that are not always open.

Social distancing restrictions have prevented the WDDC from reopening its facility to clients, Berkler added, so it has had to get creative about how to continue its efforts.

In terms of services, Berkler noted that the WDDC hasn’t experienced closures. The center continues to hand out hot meals through its kitchen window and has increased its distribution of hygiene supplies.

“In normal circumstances, we might provide about 10 bags of groceries to people who were in an emergency situation that didn’t have enough to eat,” Berkler said. “In the month of May, we provided 326 bags of groceries.”

Hygiene has also proven to be a major issue for many, particularly during the pandemic, Berkler added.

To address this, the WDDC is distributing thousands of diapers that have been donated to it, and the organization WeHOPE is providing mobile wash units. Its program, Dignity on Wheels, provides trailers equipped with showers, washing machines and bathrooms available for free use, according to its website. The trailers are brought to public areas such as churches and businesses throughout the Bay Area with a schedule posted online.

After beginning five years ago, Dignity on Wheels has provided 50,000 showers to those in need, according to WeHOPE spokesperson Dina Bartello. Dignity on Wheels Project Coordinator Anita Blount estimated that about 450 people are typically serviced every week by Dignity on Wheels in nonpandemic times. The program has seen a 30% increase in the utilization of its services during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Blount.

Many of these users also return multiple times, with the trailers returning often in order to provide users with more than one shower a week, Bartello noted.

“We’ve actually added more service sites because of COVID-19,” Bartello said. “The amount of people at our existing sites has had an uptick as well.”

While both the WDDC and WeHOPE have funding to continue services as of press time, both rely heavily on community support and seek financial contributions.

Contact Claire Daly at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @DalyClaire13.