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Fearing COVID-19, Some Homeless Shelters Close, Others Make Changes

Courtesy of Woody Gottburg/KSCJ
Typically the Sioux City Warming Shelter is open from Nov. 1 through April 30, but it closed early to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to people living there.

Concerns over COVID-19 have forced a Sioux City homeless shelter to close, while other shelters around the state remain open with plans to accommodate people and combat the disease.
People were living in such cramped quarters at the Sioux City Warming Shelter that board members were worried if COVID-19 hit, it would spread quickly. 

Typically the Warming Shelter is open from Nov. 1 through April 30, but the shelter’s director Lindsay Landrum said the building doesn’t have the ability to quarantine people or staff if they become exposed to the novel coronavirus. Because of this, the board came to the decision that it needed to close the shelter early. Landrum broke the news to the residents around 6:45 a.m. Wednesday that they needed to leave, and the shelter closed shortly after.

“There were a few that were scared because they weren’t sure where they were going to go,” Landrum said. “Then there’s those other ones that just don’t use our shelter very often, just when they can’t stay with family for a night, so they had a place to go.”

Nearly 90 people stayed at the shelter on Monday night. Landrum did not have the number from Tuesday night at the time IPR spoke with her Wednesday. She is working with the city to find some housing and hotel vouchers for the homeless population.

“I think that’s very important,” Landrum said. “I think it would be wrong of me to just throw my hands up and say ‘figure it out’.”

The short-term emergency shelter the Micah House in Council Bluffs is still open. Executive Director Jaymes Sime said the women’s shelter has 26 beds dispersed across 10 rooms, but with the risk of COVID-19, staff have left two beds available for women who need to quarantine. The shelter was at full capacity on Tuesday, with 24 women.

“If we had to expand the isolation or quarantine beyond two women, we would utilize conference room space to do so,” Sime said. “We’re hoping we don’t have to use those protocols.”

A woman at the Micah House had to stay in isolation for a couple of days because she had a high fever. Sime said the woman was able to see her primary care provider and it turned out to be strep throat, not COVID-19.

“She feels a lot better,” Sime said on Tuesday. “Literally we did a cheer this morning and she said, ‘I never thought that I’d celebrate having strep throat.’ It’s such a relief for her and I think that’s a great thing.”

The Micah House also has a family shelter with 23 rooms. Sime said Tuesday that he was in the process of filling two that were vacant. The family shelter with individual rooms lends itself well to a quarantine, if one needs to happen, he said.

“Even if an individual or a family needed to be quarantined, it’s already set up that they have their own room, their own sleeping quarters,” Sime said. “We have plans in place that we would designate a restroom to that individual, to that family. We would deliver meals to their room, provide them with activities.”

The Council Bluffs shelter had two automatic hand sanitizer dispensers installed at its front entrances. Staff ordered additional cleaning supplies and made sure that the industrial chemicals they have are capable of disinfecting for the novel coronavirus.

Polk County in central Iowa has opened up a shelter at the Youth Inn on the Iowa State Fairgrounds for people who are homeless and test positive for COVID-19. According to a news release, the county will provide meals, beds, laundry service, medical care and other resources to the people who come to stay there.

“When we are sick, we want to be comforted in a place where you feel safe and can get well. For people experiencing homeless, they  do not have a home,” said Polk County Health Department Director Helen Eddy in a news release. “Everyone needs care and compassion during this time.”

The county said there is enough space at the facility for people to keep a safe distance away from each other. A fence around the inn will serve as a barrier to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

Editor's Note 3/31/20: An earlier version said staff had not done a count of the people staying at the Warming Shelter on Tuesday. Lindsay Landrum said they did a count, but had not put the numbers into the database around the time IPR spoke with her.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.