When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Porchlight Men’s Drop-In Shelter in Madison had to readjust their housing, food and cleaning services to keep over 1,000 men experiencing homelessness safe and healthy.
At the start of the pandemic, the shelter didn’t see an increase in individuals seeking housing because of the eviction moratorium. The CDC passed this order to slow the spread of the disease and give additional time for rent relief. Anyone who received federal funding could not be evicted from housing, reducing the risk of homelessness.
The CDC signed an order to extend the eviction moratorium in Wisconsin for counties that faced substantial and high COVID-19 transmission. The order ended on Oct. 3 in Dane County, providing Porchlight with additional time to focus on the individuals already in the system.
Professor Kurt Paulsen, an expert in urban planning, believes the eviction moratorium will eventually create a surge of homelessness in Madison toward the end of the pandemic.
“Part of this comes from the fact that COVID-19 layered on top of a housing market that was already in a problem situation. And then the eviction moratorium put a lid on everything for 12 to 18 months, and now things are boiling up,” he said.
Although Paulsen criticizes the eviction moratorium, it allowed Porchlight to focus all its resources on the individuals already in the homeless system. According to Director of Services Kim Sutter, focusing on people already homeless was the primary goal of the shelter.
“Since there wasn’t a lot of displacement early on in the pandemic, we were able to focus more on the folks in our housing and figure out how to serve them best in the shelter,” Sutter said.
Porchlight partnered with Dane County and Madison public health officials to educate their community members about COVID-19. However, it remained a challenge for them to maintain safe distances in the congregate shelter, said Sutter.
“People were sleeping on mats on the floor, two to three feet away from each other. There was no social distancing possibility and no way to really sanitize a cement floor,” she explained.
On March 30, 2020, the city relocated Porchlight to a spot at the Warner Park Recreation Center to provide more space for social distancing. Dane County also put $13 million toward additional hotels-to-housing initiatives to limit virus transmission in shelters. Porchlight sent their immunocompromised populations to these county-funded hotels to allow for physical distancing, according to Sutter.
“We had three hours to identify our folks over 65 and make a list prioritizing them based on age and vulnerability to COVID-19,” said Sutter. “We plucked them out of the line and sent them over to a hotel.”
Once Porchlight relocated individuals to hotel shelters, they needed to set up a medical respite center for individuals exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
“We had to start doing health assessments right away at the door, asking every person, ‘these are the symptoms of COVID. Do you have any of these?’” Sutter explained. “We had to get our hands on touchless thermometers, which was a nightmare at the beginning of COVID-19 because they were just not available.”
Many of the sanitary and protective equipment Porchlight needed to keep their residents safe was not easily accessible at the start of the pandemic. According to Sutter, the shelter made their own hand sanitizers and local residents were donating hand-sewn masks. People even dropped off N-95 masks they had laying around in their garages.
Porchlight also needed to modify their food and cleaning services to prevent the spread of the disease. Prior to COVID-19, elderly volunteers would cook and serve the food to the residents. Putting vulnerable populations at risk was a safety concern, so the shelter had to transition from family-style dining to individually catered meals. Sutter also hired a cleaning service to do the laundry and wash the linens every day.
“It was all just a whole new world. Before COVID-19, we weren’t paying anyone for the food, we didn’t have a laundry service and we had an in-house janitor,” she said. “We were living in a basement and it was not humane in my opinion.”
The pandemic brought to light the inhumane conditions of the homeless shelter and attached urgency to the homeless issue. City-County Homeless Issues Committee Co-Chair Ulysses Williams agreed with Sutter that the homeless conditions in Madison need improvement.
“The laws have changed since I became homeless and I hear complaints about it from the homeless population right now. Although it’s a lot better than it was back then, people still get harassed by the police and local people,” Williams shared.
Before the pandemic, many city officials never stepped foot into a shelter to see how brutal the homeless conditions were.
“Once COVID-19 came around, everyone realized that shelters were not safe at all. It was the first time many of the city staff came into shelters and really understood how they work,” said Sutter.
Sutter believes that the changes made to Porchlight during the pandemic should stay because they are overall safety measures that should’ve been implemented before COVID-19 broke out.
“If we can keep these new protocols around long term, it would really help us be able to respond to a crisis in the future,” she said. “I would love for all homeless shelters to be prepared because we made some permanent changes to make spaces safer and more humane for folks.”