The Rev. Ron Stanley, Central Union Mission’s vice president, reads the Center for Disease Control and Prevention advisory notice on the coronavirus at the shelter’s nightly chapel service Monday. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
By Tara Bahrampour
March 15, 2020 at 3:09 p.m. GMT-5
As the coronavirus spreads exponentially in the region, some organizations serving the homeless and people in need have begun to shut their doors or limit their services. Those that remain open have introduced protective measures.
The District’s Central Union Mission on Wednesday began checking the body temperature of staff members and every person who comes into the facility, which provides beds for 170 to 200 people a night, along with serving an additional 25 lunch or dinner. If they have a 100-degree fever plus one other symptom of the virus, or a 101-degree fever or higher, they are blocked from entering and directed to a medical facility.
The measure is necessary because in the dormitory-style men’s shelter, where people sleep in bunks 10 inches apart, “once it’s in the door it would blow up,” said Joseph Mettimano, the shelter’s president and chief executive.
The organization’s clients, whose average age is 50, are particularly vulnerable, he said. “The people we serve, many of them already have chronic health issues; many of them already have weakened immune systems.”
Its family ministry center across the street that serves 4,000 people a month will continue to provide food and clothes but is suspending its legal aid and education programs.
Mettimano said he had been in touch with the District’s Department of Human Services about what to do if the virus gets into a shelter. “D.C. was trying to gear up centers where homeless people can go for treatment, quarantine, et cetera. We’re not doctors, we’re not a medical facility, so we don’t have the ability to diagnose or address” the disease.
The department did not respond to a request from The Washington Post for information about its planning.
Mettimano said he had been in meetings all week, trying to plan for different scenarios. “If your staff get it too, what do you do?” he said. “What’s the nuclear option?”
So Others Might Eat, an organization on O Street NW that provides over 1,000 meals a day to people in need, has begun serving cold breakfasts and lunches in bags rather than plates of hot food, to reduce face-to-face contact between staff and clients, most of whom are homeless.
The measure is also necessary because volunteers have been canceling shifts, said Kate Wiley, director of marketing and communications. The organization’s medical clinics will stay open; its job training program will not, she said.
St. Matthew’s Cathedral on Rhode Island Avenue NW said it would suspend its Monday morning hot buffet breakfasts, at which 20 volunteers typically serve 60 people, most of them homeless.
“We thought it would not be safe to have everyone together in the place where we hold the meetings,” said the Rev. John Benson, the parochial vicar. “So what we decided is we will do it outside, with lunches in bags.”
Volunteers’ enthusiasm had not flagged since the virus hit, he said, but the restriction was necessary to protect them. “A lot of our volunteers are an older, vulnerable population, and also many of the homeless people.”
A Wider Circle, a Silver Spring organization that provides household items, job counseling and other services, said it would close for 15 days starting Saturday as a preventive measure, although it knew of no coronavirus cases in its community.
“Because we typically have more than 250 people in our Silver Spring headquarters — and far more than that on many days — we need to take this action,” founder and CEO Mark Bergel said in an announcement. “We want to help flatten the curve of cases, and we also want to ensure our staff of 70 is fully loved and supported.”