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Columbus Homeless Shelter Readies To House People With COVID-19

Downtown Columbus
Ryan Hitchcock

Three weeks since the city of Columbus announced it was working with community organizations to open a coronavirus-specific homeless shelter, and the shelter remains mostly empty. It’s meant to help keep people diagnosed with COVID-19 away from others, and leaders are preparing for an influx.

“I’ve been talking with staff from YMCA who are gathered in the common spaces of this facility, in the lobby,” says Community Shelter Board employee Sara Loken. “They’re all wearing medical scrubs and masks to protect the residents.”

Community Shelter Board, the YMCA and the city all partnered to open the shelter. Its location isn’t being disclosed to protect the privacy of those who stay there. Mayor Andrew Ginther announced the shelter’s opening in a conference call with reporters in late March.

“Our shelters are not built for proper social distancing, the key to slowing the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” Ginther explained.

Even with social distancing measures in place, the shelters is currently housing just 11 residents. Community Shelter Board director Michelle Heritage says they're still expecting a lot more temporary residents.

“There may be more than 200 people that are arriving there because if we have a family, they may have two, three, four members,” Heritage says. “But we’re able to serve about 200, and right now we have 11 people. They are all in isolation. That means they’re either COVID positive or they have symptoms.”

Community partners are using projections from the Ohio Department of Health to predict how many beds may be needed at height of COVID-19 cases in the state.

“The surge really begins right now. Then over the course of the next four weeks, we should see that steadily increase,” Heritage explains. “Then hopefully decrease back down.”

Heritage says she’s expecting to see the largest number of shelter visitors in the first week of May. Ginther says that’s in part because some people who were in transient housing situations no longer have that option.

“A lot of these folks were living with relatives, maybe couchsurfing and other things,” Ginther says. “But as the virus spread and concern about the virus, they were told by those folks, ‘Hey, it’s time for you to move on.’”

In addition to the COVID-specific shelter, Ginther says the city is also monitoring residents at three other facilities for people who’ve recovered.

“There were folks who had contracted COVID-19, tested positive and had symptoms, and they didn’t need to be hospitalized any further,” Ginther says. “They were far enough along in their recovery, but the last thing we wanted to do was send them back to these shelters.”

Bill Faith, head of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing, has been collecting donations of face masks for homeless shelters in Ohio.
Credit Courtesy of Bill Faith
Bill Faith, head of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing, has been collecting donations of face masks for homeless shelters in Ohio.

Ensuring Protection

As with many hospitals and businsesses these days, it can be hard to find enough personal protective equipment. Heritage says groups like the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio have been helping the shelter collect adequate amounts.

Coalition director Bill Faith used social media to start a mask collection drive at his house.

“Here’s my front porch where I have two red crates sitting out on the porch where people drop things off,” he explains. “Somebody dropped off a little packet of dust masks. Which are really not, they fall into the ‘better than nothing’ category.”

Since posting a tweet a few weeks ago asking people to make masks and bring them to his house,  Faith says locals have responded in large numbers. He says he’s been receiving and sending out donations on a daily basis.

“People let us know what we need, we fill them up and get them to folks on the front lines across the state,” Faith says.

According to Faith, there are about 300 homeless shelters serving 10,000 people at any given time in the state of Ohio.

Heritage hopes, with the new equipment and shifted facilities, they’re in a good position to help.

“I hope we don’t have to fully use these facilities, but what we’ve done is stand them up and waiting, just like our convention center is ready and waiting if that is needed for the surge,” Heritage says.

The shelter is paid for by the city’s emergency fund.

Do you have questions about the coronavirus in Ohio? Ask below as part of our Curious Cbus series.


Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.