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Shelters and food banks prepare for coronavirus

  • Updated
  • 3 min to read

Creating a calm place amidst chaos has taken on a new urgency for local social services that tend to the area’s homeless and hungry in the COVID-19 virus crisis.

“Stuff that we work on anyway is being heightened by the pandemic,” said Anne-Marie Zell Schwerin, Walla Walla YWCA executive director.

Her organization provides domestic violence shelter and sexual assault services as well as community programs and childcare.

“Advocates are researching each challenge and working with each client to make a plan,” she said.

She said it is harder for people who have been living with the trauma of violence to now have to face issues arising with the COVID-19 virus, such as getting food and toiletries on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis when stores are running low on supplies and dealing with government-imposed restrictions to slow the spread of the virus.

“It’s very triggering,” Schwerin said.

People also are dealing with uncertainty of job and income security. Their routine is already interrupted when in a shelter, now kids are not at school due to closures, and it all adds up to more chaos for people, she said.

The YWCA is trying to add seven more spots to their My Friends House child care program by converting a room into a classroom, hoping to meet licensing requirements.

“We are making sure we come from a place of calm and create a place of calm,” she said.

Yet things are changing hour by hour as big cities and small towns alike make adjustments to counter the health, social and economic effects of the pandemic.

“We are truly flying the airplane while it’s being built,” Schwerin said.

Staff are making videos for proper hand washing and cough etiquette and participating in training sessions to keep themselves and clients healthy. They are following protocols provided the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health and King County’s health department.

“They have done a lot of work on how to deal with coronavirus in a shelter setting,” she said.

Walla Walla’s sleep center for homeless people also is following the health guidelines so it can remain open.

“We want to be able to stay open but at the same time we don’t want to increase the likelihood of passing the virus from one person to the next, and we are concerned with protecting our volunteers,” said Chuck Hindman, chairman of the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless.

He said the number of sleep center volunteers has decreased because they’re older and more at risk of suffering the worst of the disease should they contract a case.

“We are working with the city on options if we are short of human resources and provide oversight in other ways,” Hindman said.

The Alliance is also working with the medical community about how to respond if people at the sleep center are ill and where they would go.

“We are not open during the day, so ‘Just stay home’ doesn’t work as a solution,” Hindman said.

Organizations that handle hunger are also gearing up as the pandemic takes its toll on the economy and businesses shut down or reduce employee hours.

The Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank expects to receive eight times more food than this time last year in preparation for the spreading pandemic, said Director Jeff Mathias.

A lot of people will be out of work and a fourfold increase in the number of clients nationally is expected, he explained.

The state agriculture department has requested a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for all eligibility requirements, meaning anyone wanting to go to the food bank would no longer have to meet certain income requirements.

Food distribution services also are offering grab and go bags to prevent the spread of the virus, Mathias said. Blue Mountain Action Council is planning drive-thru distributions and will not collect signatures.

Today from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. they will have a senior distribution, and for the next six Saturdays will hold drive-throughs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 921 W. Cherry St.

For those who don’t have cars, BMAC is looking for ways to provide social distancing so people are at less risk of contracting or spreading the virus.

BMAC is also screening people who want to help out and asking those 70 or older, or with underlying health conditions not to volunteer, Mathias said. Donations are just as helpful as volunteering, however, and can be made online at bmacww.org/campaigns.

The Christian Aid Center, which offers services for homeless people, is restructuring its operations and created special quarters for quarantining people if needed.

Other measures to prevent the spread of the virus include closing the barber shop, canceling all meetings and programs open to the public, including chapel services.

Meals will be distributed in a “grab-and-go” system rather than serving them in the dining room. The center also has single point-of-entry screening stations at each of its separate campuses for men and women.

Jeannette Regaldo, Christian Aid Center volunteer coordinator, is also recruiting special response volunteers who will be called when needed. She can be reached at 509-525-7153 ext. 114. The center’s website is christianaidcenter.org.

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Chloe LeValley can be reached at chloelevalley@wwub.com or 509-526-8326.

Chloe LeValley covers the cities of Walla Walla and College Place as well as agriculture and the environment in the Walla Walla Valley. She is a graduate of San Francisco State University and joined the Union-Bulletin's team in October 2019.