Residents of a D.C. homeless shelter were given a choice last week: Stay, knowing they could be shut in for an indefinite amount of time, or leave, knowing they could not return until the threat posed by the rapidly spreading coronavirus had passed.
About 170 men at Central Union Mission in Northwest Washington chose to stay, officials said.
“They know we’re doing this to try to protect them and keep whatever virus is out there from getting in here,” shelter president Joe Mettimano said. “The government is asking everyone to stay home. For these 170 men, the shelter is home.”
Experts have warned that a coronavirus outbreak inside a homeless shelter would devastate a community that tends to be older, sicker and more vulnerable to the disease. Though a handful of residents have over the past several weeks showed symptoms associated with the virus — coughing, fever, shortness of breath — none has tested positive for covid-19, Mettimano said.
He wants to keep it that way. Staff members have been ordered to wear N95 masks inside the facility. Though they are allowed to return home at the end of their shifts, they are expected to strictly adhere to social distancing guidelines while off duty.
Should the shelter decide to take additional safety measures, Mettimano said, the “nuclear option” would be to fully lock down the facility and require staff to stay overnight.
“Everything we do is geared toward trying to keep our residents safe,” he said.
The new rules took effect Friday. Attendance at in-house job training and educational programs increased over the weekend as residents sought ways to pass the time. Staff members brought in ping-pong tables and set up games.
Though shelter residents are allowed to step out several times a day — to smoke, walk around, take in the fresh air — if they choose to leave the premises, Mettimano said, they cannot come back.
By Marissa Lang