December 25, 2020
San José Spotlight is the city’s first nonprofit news organization dedicated to independent political and business reporting. Please support our public service journalism by clicking here.
COVID-19 has breached protected living quarters in San Jose, but at least one operator of such facilities has managed to get all female residents to safety during the pandemic.
CityTeam, which provides temporary shelter to people in need, has so far kept its four San Jose women’s shelters COVID-free, despite having had some exposure fears, said Melody Alvarado, director of the organization’s women’s program. It does that by being vigilant and careful – and by reducing the number of people housed in it, she said.
“We have had multiple exposures where we had to go through the quarantine process, test, do isolation, and do contact tracing,” Alvarado said. “But we haven’t had any positive cases, which is amazing to be able to say.”
CityTeam Women’s Shelters in San Jose provide transitional housing for young mothers, women recovering from substance abuse, those who have suffered domestic violence, and women aging out of foster families.
When the epidemic hit the city, CityTeam changed the way it worked. To protect existing residents from the corona virus, the organization did not accept any new ones. Meetings were held about Zoom. And it limited volunteering to what could be done online.
It also isolated and tested residents exposed to the virus to prevent an outbreak.
CityTeam reduces the number of people in emergency shelters
But perhaps the biggest change Alvarado and her team have made in response to COVID-19 has been to reduce the number of people they serve. The women’s refuge program operated its facilities with a capacity of around two thirds. Previously, up to 24 people could be accommodated in the facility of the House of Grace. Now there are only 18. Likewise, the Heritage Home shelter now only offers accommodation for 8 people, up from 12 before the epidemic started.
Health experts have warned of the unique dangers that shelters face during the pandemic. Since residents find it difficult to distance themselves socially in such facilities, COVID-19 can spread more easily, warned Santa Clara County Deputy Health Officer Dr. George Han.
“As cases increase in the community, it also means more cases are introduced into these congregation environments,” he said. “Outbreaks have increased in recent weeks.”
There have been a few cases in CityTeam’s men’s shelters throughout the epidemic.
Mary, a homeless resident of Roosevelt Park Camp, said she was glad the CityTeam women’s shelters had no positive cases.
“Women’s shelters have many domestic violence survivors,” said Mary, who asked that her last name be withheld for fear that people might find out about their homeless status. “Knowing that there is no (COVID-19) could lead to more women signing up.”
Outbreaks in other shelters
Other shelters in San Jose have not been as successful in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
HomeFirst’s Boccardo Reception Center handled a few cases each month before 55 new cases emerged after the pandemic re-emerged in November.
“The thing about the living quarters gathered is that they respond to whatever happens in the larger community, and so our community began to revolve around Thanksgiving,” said Andrea Urton, CEO of HomeFirst. “We immediately quarantined people and then teamed up with the county to take them to a hotel or motel so they could be socially isolated.”
Of the more than 100 people removed from the Boccardo Reception Center, more than 61 residents have since completed the quarantine period and have been cleared for return.
Like CityTeam, HomeFirst has taken steps to contain outbreaks. The organization spent $ 20,000 on ultraviolet light to disinfect surfaces. It replaced all air filters in its shelters with highly efficient particle absorbing (HEPA). Such filters can prevent the virus from spreading in the air when someone coughs or sneezes.
HomeFirst also reduced its capacity. While Boccardo once housed around 250 people per night, the center is now limited to 110 people.
And steps have been taken to ensure that residents can socially distance themselves while sleeping and be separated from one another by empty beds.
“We have so few things as people who sleep head-to-toe. When someone coughs or sneezes, they cough on someone’s feet,” said Urton.
“We spent eight and a half months in our facilities without incident,” she added. “I think that speaks volumes for how hard our people worked.”
Feelings of isolation
At his men’s facilities, CityTeam has taken similar steps to protect residents from COVID-19.
The number of people it houses has been reduced from around 50 to just 27. Recently, the frequency with which residents were tested for COVID-19 also increased from once a month to once a week. And there were temporarily no more overnight stays for walk-in customers to prevent them from transmitting the coronavirus to existing residents.
“The customers we have right now are working and when they are not working they are protected on the spot,” said James Alvarado, operations manager at CityTeam’s San Jose office.
The strict measures CityTeam and other animal shelter operators have put in place to prevent outbreaks have their drawbacks. You cannot serve so many people. And those they can serve often feel isolated or lonely.
The social distancing rules in CityTeam’s women’s shelters prohibit residents from having visitors and visiting people outside their households. Many residents long to meet with their families again, Melody Alvarado said.
“The biggest problems our women face is not much family interaction and the freedom to do what we all experience,” she said. “They want this to be over. They are tired of being inside and get a little bored looking at the same walls all the time.”
Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @vicentejvera.