The top two recommendations for not spreading the coronavirus — washing hands frequently and staying home — are not as attainable for people who are homeless.

Adults and children sleeping in tents, cars, emergency shelters or temporary housing may not have access to running water or a stable spot where they can hunker down for a while, said Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of The Place, formerly known as Urban Peak Colorado Springs.

The lack of adequate hygiene, exposure to the elements and underlying health conditions also make them more vulnerable to contagious diseases, she said.

While there is no reported case of coronavirus in the local homeless community, local service agencies are stepping up sanitizing practices and changing normal operations in ways to prevent clients from contracting and spreading the virus.

The Marian House Soup Kitchen, run by Catholic Charities of Central Colorado, has switched from en masse dining to providing a to-go lunch, said spokeswoman Rochelle Schlortt.

About 540 people grabbed a sack lunch on Monday, Schlortt said, adding that on average, about 500 to 750 people visit the center for the noontime meal.

Clients who need baby food, diapers and formula now are required to order the supplies via phone or email, as opposed to walking into the facility, she said.

“We are still trying to operate as fully as we can, but things that are not essential services, we are temporarily shutting down if they are not services we can offer through technology.”

For at least the next two weeks, the center has postponed classes, job fairs and hiring events, she said. Life-coaching and counseling sessions will be offered through emails and FaceTime video chats, she said.

Keeping the virus away from the homeless population, where it could potentially spread quickly, is a concern of communities nationwide.

The city's largest shelter, Springs Rescue Mission, is in "emergency operations mode,' which means it is limiting community interactions. Its donation dock is closed and all community events are postponed until further notice.  

The shelter often houses more than 400 people a night.

At The Place, a state-licensed, 20-bed emergency shelter for ages 15 to 20 and an accompanying transitional housing program for 70 homeless youths, efforts to disinfect, clean and protect employees and adolescents are in high gear, Kemppainen said.

“You’re talking about 20 young people living in one space, and ensuring we’re cleaning the toilet bowls more frequently and every single surface,” she said.

The shelter has been near or at capacity in recent days, as there aren’t as many teens on the streets as usual, Kemppainen said. That led to Tuesday’s scaling back of a street outreach program, she said. The Place will continue to send staff to seek out young people on the streets a few times a week but not every day, as it normally does.

In addition, a group called the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, which works to eliminate homelessness in El Paso County, is collaborating to share information, strategies and disinfecting supplies, said Kemppainen, a member of the organization’s board.

“It’s great we have this level of collaboration,” she said.

The Place has a two-week stockpile of cleaning solutions, hygiene products and food on hand, she said, and obtained a short-in-supply hand sanitizing station.

Employees also are preparing for a potential isolation or quarantine space, and have limited initially exposing the rest of the shelter to youths coming directly off the streets. 

While most youths are out in the community during the day, they are now mostly hanging out at the shelter, where they are doing school work online if they are in high school, playing Guitar Hero or Dance Off games on a large screen, challenging one another to traditional board games and making arts and crafts, such as painting messages of gratitude on rocks.

“Mostly, we’re seeing young people with some levels of concern — how dangerous is this, what does social distancing mean,” Kemppainen said. 

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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