Adapting Shelters to Social Distancing

Adapting Shelters to Social Distancing

Bright and early on Thursday, August 13, community members tuned in from their homes for our second virtual Wake Up! with United Way. This month we welcomed many guest speakers to discuss the topic, “Adapting Shelters to Social Distancing.”

The panel included Beverly Calender-Anderson, Director of the City of Bloomington Community and Family Resources Department (CFRD); Dana Jones, Director of the Men’s Shelter at Wheeler Mission Bloomington; Debra Morrow, Executive Director of Middle Way House; Chase Techentin, Director of The Roof at New Hope for Families; and Keirsten White, Director of the Monroe County Isolation Shelter at Shalom Community Center.  

To begin the discussion, moderator and Executive Director of United Way of Monroe County Efrat Feferman, noted that COVID-19 brought many changes to overnight shelters. These changes required quick adaptation to continue to safely serve a population that was last estimated to be around 400 people in our community, according to Feferman. These needs became a priority focus in the United Way COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.  

Calender-Anderson echoed this point, touching on the City’s concern for community-wide public health at the start of the pandemic.

“An outbreak in a shelter could not only devastate the guests at the shelters, but then could spread throughout our entire community,” she said.  

The City was able to facilitate valuable funding for the Isolation Shelter, which Calender-Anderson noted was already in the works prior to City involvement.  

“These agencies stepped right up and started to solve the issue themselves,” she said.  

The Isolation Shelter was a significant project that began to address the issue of those without homes who have the need to quarantine due to exposure or contraction of COVID-19. Many organizations in our community collaborated on the planning for this shelter, with invaluable assistance from the Monroe County Health Department.  

White referred to the process as “constant adaptation” for both the Isolation Shelter and all other aspects of Shalom Community Center.  

While Shalom Community Center closed its day center doors to the public and attempted to provide services outside, the Isolation Shelter was established at a warehouse. Today, the day center serves guests with health screening and masks requirements, the Isolation Shelter has moved to a hotel, and A Friend’s Place overnight shelter has moved to the original location of the Isolation Shelter for social distancing.  

The other organizations experienced similar changes and adaptations. According to Jones, Wheeler Mission was already experiencing a high volume of guests in February and March as the winter was winding down and COVID-19 became a serious issue.  

"We’ve got emergency action plans for everything,” he said. “But we sure didn’t have an emergency action plan for a pandemic.”

Jones said that in this time uncertainty, the continuum of care and collaboration between community organizations was crucial to responding effectively. For example, the Wheeler Mission benefitted from an established relationship with the Monroe County Health Department after responding to a Hepatitis B outbreak last year.  

Relationships like these led to initiatives and grant funding for things like hand washing stations, desperately needed personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitation supplies, expansion of the day room and overnight shelter, and increased staffing.  

“It’s amazing some of the changes that have occurred in such a short amount of time,” Jones said. And amid all these changes, between the months of March and July, Wheeler Mission served 35,000 meals and housed 436 people, according to Jones.  

As the discussion turned to New Hope for Families, Techentin echoed Jones and the importance of the connections within our community.

“We are so grateful to be part of a community that’s connected and working together on this challenge,” he said.  

The South Central Housing Network, a network of shelter providers organized by the state of Indiana, served as one of these connections. The Health Department spoke at the network’s last monthly meeting in February to provide information and guidelines about the pandemic.  

Techentin said The Roof responded to COVID-19 with funds from Phase 1 of United Way’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund to temporarily move to a hotel that not only allowed proper social distancing, but also doubled the shelter’s capacity. This capacity increase was necessary to respond to the rising need due to financial hardships caused by the pandemic. During these months, The Roof housed 15 families, 12 of which have moved into affordable leases.  

“This has been a really collaborative effort to make sure people are safe,” Techentin said.  

When it came to keeping people safe, Middle Way House was also facing new challenges. In addition to social distancing and safety within the shelters and programs, the organization had to find new ways to ensure survivors could reach them, explained Morrow.  

Stay-at-home orders and businesses closing left many people trapped in unsafe homes and unable to access domestic violence resources, she said. This challenge was addressed with an emergency chat line that survivors could connect with via text. Morrow said some survivors that did reach out were hesitant to leave their homes and enter a shelter during a pandemic, so Middle Way House adapted by assisting survivors with travel expenses to stay with friends or family.

During this time, across the state, domestic violence resources saw a dramatic decrease in calls, said Morrow.  

“We knew that as soon as things opened back up, that, all of a sudden, the phones would be ringing off the hook again,” she said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

While all these organizations were adapting their services very quickly, they also lost the ability to hold fundraising events in the same ways as previous years. This created a whole new set of challenges.  

Calender-Anderson said that organizations like United Way, Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County, Bloomington Health Foundation, and the City’s Jack Hopkins social services grant played large roles in making up for organizations’ lack of funds.  

“I think you all did a wonderful job of coming up with resources in a very short amount of time and funding some of the things to help our most vulnerable residents in Bloomington,” she said.  

When it comes to fundraising, many organizations are moving online. Shalom Community Center’s Solidarity Sleepout is usually a group of supporters sleeping outside together to raise funds for A Friend’s Place emergency shelter. This year, participants camped out at their homes and tuned in virtually, said White. And the fundraiser did meet its goal of $50,000, she said, which will fund A Friend’s Place for a year.

Morrow said Middle Way House cancelled their spring luncheon but has schedule a virtual luncheon that is being called an “un-luncheon.” They will also still be holding their annual Wrapped in Love tree sweater fundraiser.  

“It’s challenging to try and plan,” she said. “We can’t plan events like we used to.”

With these fundraising challenges, dollar donations are always a huge way to support organizations in the community. But there are other ways you can help.  

Jones called on community members who are able and interested to volunteer. At Wheeler Mission Bloomington, volunteers help with serving meals, classroom training, and greeting and hospitality.  

He also expressed a need for advocacy, not only for COVID-19 related issues, but also for the issue of affordable housing and homelessness in general. He recommended involvement with the Community Organizations Active in Disaster in Monroe County to become involved in our community’s response to things like COVID-19.  

Techentin echoed the importance of advocacy, as the eviction moratorium was lifted this month. This means individuals and families can now be evicted, and they will be in need of rental or utility assistance to avoid homelessness.  

To learn more, watch the full event and explore the resources below:  

 Connect with the organizations represented in the discussion:

Resources shared during the discussion:

Helpful Resources:


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Wake Up! with United Way is a collaborative project of United Way of Monroe County and IU’s Political and Civic Engagement Program, with thanks to The Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce and the Bloomington Board of Realtors for series support.