Groups Work To Protect Vulnerable Populations During Pandemic
By Beth Milligan | March 23, 2020
Organizations across the Grand Traverse region are working to protect individuals who could be especially vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic, from those experiencing homelessness and addiction to victims of domestic and sexual abuse to residents struggling with mental health issues.
Individuals experiencing homelessness are considered a particularly high-risk group. Many are crowded together in camps or shelters, don’t have access to regular hygienic and medical resources, and are limited in their ability to receive critical updates from health professionals and the government. At both Safe Harbor of Grand Traverse and the Goodwill Inn, staff and volunteers are making significant adjustments to their operations to lower the risk of an outbreak at the emergency shelters.
“We’ve done a number of things right away,” says Safe Harbor Board Chair Mike McDonald. “We did offer a sleeping bag and tent to any guest who didn’t want to come (to the shelter) any longer. Some guests chose to do that. We’ve identified some of our most vulnerable guests – those who are older or have underlying conditions – and gotten them into hotel rooms. That has brought our guest count down from the mid-seventies to the mid-fifties.”
Safe Harbor has erected a tent outside its Wellington Street building to use for food service, allowing the existing dining room to be used as a supplemental sleeping area. That has allowed guest mats and beds to be spread further apart – ideally six feet. A physician from Traverse Health Clinic is available to interview any guests with symptoms virtually, and all guests are monitored for symptoms as they enter the shelter. If any guest begins exhibiting symptoms, an isolated sleeping area and masks are available to immediately cordon them off from other guests. Safe Harbor has also hired professional cleaners to complete a deep clean of the facility each day after guests have left in the morning. The main challenge for Safe Harbor now, says McDonald, is finding younger volunteers who are at lower risk of coronavirus to help at the shelter, which is expected to operate through at least mid-April. Safe Harbor has encouraged its elderly volunteers – a majority of the roster – to stay home for their own protection (volunteer information and signup is available here).
Goodwill Northern Michigan CEO Dan Buron says similar precautionary measures have been enacted at the Goodwill Inn, which offers 120 beds and 11 family rooms for adults and families experiencing homelessness. Several families and immunocompromised residents have been moved into hotels or temporary housing, with other beds spread into those vacated spaces to keep guests further apart. “We’re fortunate nationwide that there hasn’t been an outbreak in a homeless shelter yet,” says Buron. “Part of that is because of the social isolation of homelessness. There’s not as much contact with other people or people who’ve been traveling, which in this case, might actually be working in our favor.”
The Women’s Resource Center (WRC) can accommodate up to 22 guests at its shelter, where more rigorous guest spacing and building cleaning protocols are being followed. Social service experts have warned that cases of domestic violence can increase during periods of increased unemployment, stress, and social isolation. Executive Director Juliette Schultz says WRC still has advocates on call 24/7 to assist victims of domestic or sexual violence. While face-to-face meetings at WRC have all been moved to phone meetings, advocates will still physically go to Munson Medical Center to be with assault victims. WRC also has a stocked pantry with essential items to help survivors; the organization is coordinating donation pickups and drop-offs that don’t require face-to-face contact. “Our advocates have risen to the challenge, and everyone has come together,” Schultz says. “We’re trying to walk through this just like any other organization. We want to be here for survivors. We know we provide a critical service; we’re first responders to domestic and sexual violence.”
Individuals in recovery or treatment for substance abuse are also at high risk during times of upheaval, says PORCH Recovery Center Manager Matt Zerilli of Addiction Treatment Services (ATS). “In our world, one of the high-risk points in addiction is transition,” he says. “Even in my own experience, that’s always a jarring thing.” Since substance abuse treatment is viewed as an essential service, ATS’ inpatient residential homes still remain open and operational. Outpatient and therapy appointments are now being conducted through telemedicine, and ATS has compiled a running list of meetings – such as for AA and NA – being offered online. While the PORCH, ATS’ community center, is closed to in-person gatherings, Zerilli and other staff are working to offer increased social media content, including live daily broadcasts, meditation, yoga, trivia, and other social and wellness opportunities.
“Connection is really important to our community,” Zerilli says. “We’re really trying to keep a close eye on folks. If someone needs someone to check on them every day, we can connect them with recovery coaches who will do that. We’re available 24/7. The biggest message we’re trying to get out is to keep a routine and structure: Keep up with meetings, check in with people, try to keep your life as close as possible to normal. It’s a real challenge, but this is temporary.”
A majority of therapy and counseling offices in Michigan have also moved to virtual appointments and telemedicine, including Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. Traverse City Clinic Manager Kristine Wilmoth, MSCP, LLP says patients have adapted surprisingly well to the transition, with many – particularly those with anxiety disorders – actually preferring the option of meeting with their therapist from the comfort of their own home. Wilmoth says she’s also seen a significant increase in insurance authorization for services, another positive response to the pandemic. “A few days ago, we were pretty close to 90 percent of insurance providers authorizing any service we have,” she says.
Wilmoth notes that nationwide crises can compound fears for those with anxiety, particularly in the case of the current pandemic, because “it is impacting so many areas of life.” She offers several tips for anyone struggling mentally with the nationwide emergency. Those include pursuing regular outside and physical activity, maintaining good nutrition, calling or virtually scheduling social time with friends and family, setting boundaries if in close contact with stressful individuals, and limiting social media and cable news time. “I’d set times of day where I’d check local news and see if there are direct impacts on your life, then move on to a different activity,” she says.
For all of the above essential services, organizations aren’t just responding to the current need created by the pandemic now – they’re anticipating increasing need in the months ahead. More and more individuals may seek therapy to cope with financial insecurity, relationship stress, and prolonged social isolation, while increased homelessness could be a looming risk in the coming months if unemployment is prolonged for large segments of the population.
“We definitely are going to start seeing an increase in demand for basic needs, from food to shelter to medical care,” says Buron. “It’s going to put a huge strain on the whole system.” The flip side of that reality, he and other leaders say, is that community members are already responding positively, stepping up with donations and volunteer time and a willingness to assist neighbors and nonprofits. For those who have the resources to help, Buron encourages individuals to stay involved – giving financial or physical support as able – and to check on vulnerable individuals. Schultz says she believes the communitywide network of individuals and organizations working together will eventually help the region weather the crisis.
“What I’m seeing is that compassion in people is at an all-time high,” she said. “We’re working closely with our local partners, and we’re all helping each other, so that everyone is staying in close touch to help our most vulnerable people.”Comment