Open Door opens day center for homeless amid coronavirus concerns
With the sun breaking through the clouds after three days of rain and people spaced six feet apart eating sack lunches nearby, Dave Kaylor shouted, "Wash your hands," to a few people who had just arrived hoping for food and supplies.
Kaylor has been helping run a daytime resource center for people — like himself — who are homeless in the parking lot of Open Door Counseling Center.
The nonprofit, located off Highway 8 in between Cornelius and Hillsboro, has become the only place in western Washington County where unhoused people can receive a hot meal, a shower and supplies. A volunteer shortage amid concerns about COVID-19 forced the area's only two winter shelters to end their seasons early in mid-March.
Without access to sanitary resources and health care, people experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
The coronavirus nearly prevented Open Door from continuing to provide essential services as well, said Jeremy Toevs, a certified housing counselor and director of the nonprofit.
Unhoused people typically come to the old repurposed farmhouse where Open Door operates to receive case management, mental health and housing counseling and basic resources such as food, soap and clothing.
"With all the different changes that were happening with the executive orders of limiting events from 500 people to 250 people to 100 to 50, as the numbers started dwindling, we were thinking, 'Well, how do we contain an outbreak in such a small area?'" Toevs said as cases of COVID-19 began to increase in Oregon. "If someone were to get sick and bring it to the shelter, it would spread very quickly."
The nonprofit was also worried about its staff. One staff member has an infant who had a liver transplant and has a weakened immune system. Another staff member is at-risk because she's in her 70s.
"And then there was a small scare where we might have had a client come to us who had COVID-19," Toevs said, adding that it was a false alarm. "He thought he had it, went to the hospital, they didn't do any testing, it was just more of him explaining his symptoms and they said, 'If you're sick, you should probably go home and self-quarantine.' And he said, 'Well, I don't have a home.'"
Toevs said he and his staff realized they needed to figure out a way to continue helping to meet people's basic needs during their heightened vulnerability.
With the help of Brian Schimmel and Jeff Shapiro, who run Community Connection, another nonprofit based in western Washington County that supports service providers, Open Door set up an outdoor day center, which is now open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. It's complete with portable toilets, handwashing stations and picnic tables under tents. A mobile shower trailer, built primarily by Shapiro, that debuted at local winter shelters in November has also been stationed at Open Door.
There's also a clear dividing line marked with caution tape that separates the day center from Open Door's indoor facility, where meals and supplies are prepared according to guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Toevs said day center guests are not allowed into the indoor facility to limit possible exposure to the coronavirus.
He acknowledged there are inherent concerns with having a central location where people who are often elderly and vulnerable to COVID-19 come to receive services, but he added the consequences of not providing the service could be worse. Public places such as libraries that formerly allowed unhoused people to use the bathroom, wash their hands and access water are now closed.
Open Door's volunteers and staff immediately ask all guests to wash their hands when they arrive and stay six feet away from others.
Guests haven't been worried about becoming ill at the day center — they're worried about contracting the coronavirus in camps, where there aren't sanitary facilities or people emphasizing guidelines form health officials.
"They feel like if someone gets sick, it's going to spread amongst them very quickly," Toevs said.
Kaylor, who has frequently been in charge of making sure everyone is obeying health guidelines, said it has been difficult to enforce.
"It's a pain in the butt," Kaylor said. "You gotta tell them to stay six feet away, sometimes four or five times. It's a constant deal. They gotta think of it this way, 'It's for their safety and ours.'"
He said it has also been difficult to disinfect the shower stalls in the mobile shower trailer after each use, adding he's doing his best to make sure he follows protocols for his own sake.
"If I get it, I'm screwed, because I'm 61," Kaylor said. "I heard it's more harmful for the elderly than young people."
A guest named Will, who preferred not to give his last name, said despite social distancing directives, the day center also provides an important opportunity to talk to people.
He sat six feet away from several other people at the day shelter while he ate a sandwich and talked to them.
"Having this kind of social atmosphere is really important — people don't realize that," Will said. "With the libraries and other places closed, it's hard."
Will has been living in the Forest Grove area since 2015, he said, adding that he has a tent at a camp there with a few other people who have been doing their best to keep their distance from each other. He said he feels safer at the day shelter than at the camp, because sometimes people with whom he camps get intoxicated, which makes them less conscious of social distancing.
Without places to go inside and get warm, at least having a shower is essential, Will said.
He hopes local governments will expand their capacity to give out hotel vouchers if public facilities stay closed in the future.
Open Door staff will take operations day by day and make adjustments when necessary to provide people a safe place to get basic resources, Toevs said. He said the nonprofit might be able to rent a 20- by 20-foot tent, which would allow heating while it's still cold outside.
Although a lot of the staff's energy has been shifted to providing basic services, Open Door still needs to provide housing services.
"Even though foreclosures themselves have been put on moratorium, people are still getting foreclosure notices, and they want to make they still have a home at the end of all this," Toevs said. "We might be looking at a whole new level of housing issues as we end this pandemic."
Shapiro said while the coronavirus has created a lot of uncertainty for people who are housing insecure, it's important to look for positive developments.
Ahead of this past sheltering season, Shapiro contacted several companies asking for donations, including a sock company called Bombas that donates a pair of socks for each purchased pair.
After initially telling Shapiro other shelters were ahead on a list for donations, Bombas contacted him a few weeks ago and said they're ready to ship nearly 1,300 pairs of socks.
People can help support Open Door by volunteering to help prepare lunches and assemble outdoor supplies as well as donating items such as toiletries, food and rain ponchos.
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