CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Charlottesville Tomorrow) – For Jim Bourn, a man from Brighton, Michigan, experiencing homelessness, Charlottesville is something of a mystery.
“I’m lost here,” he said.
Every night from March 23 to June 3, though, Bourn had a familiar place to rest his head. He and about 20 others slept in Key Recreation Center, which served as People And Congregations Engaged in Ministry’s indefinite shelter space for men experiencing homelessness.
Prior to repurposing the space as a shelter, it was unclear how PACEM would house people seeking shelter during the coronavirus pandemic.
PACEM Executive Director Jayson Whitehead said that decisions had to be made quickly.
“We were having really serious discussions about how we need to alter our sleeping sites where the cots are traditionally, like, 2 feet apart from each other,” Whitehead said. A space needed to be found that could host beds 6 feet apart in order to maintain social distancing guidelines.
Whitehead said it was clear that it was going to have to be a gymnasium somewhere downtown because of the amount of space needed and to maintain proximity to The Haven day shelter, where many people access crucial services throughout the day. Key Rec provided the perfect solution, compared to the church spaces PACEM traditionally relies on, which they rotated through every two weeks.
Kaki Dimock, director of human services for the city of Charlottesville, said this predicament was long anticipated by Charlottesville’s housing security network.
“The consequence of having a homeless population that is maintained in shelters is that during a pandemic, you have the highest-risk people in a position where they cannot quarantine,” Dimock said. “They cannot stay isolated, they cannot stay home. That really presents a pretty significant public health problem to communities.”
At the start of the crisis, the city began implementing a phased plan to move people experiencing homelessness into hotel rooms with money obtained from the CARES Act, which Congress enacted to lessen the economic fallout from the pandemic.
The first phase was to provide rooms for those who tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and had to be immediately quarantined. The second round provided rooms for people who had pre-existing conditions that made them more susceptible to contracting the virus. This reduced the amount of men staying in the shelter by about ⅔.
But after Phase 2 of Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to reopen the state forced PACEM to close Key Recreation Center as a shelter, it was “down to the wire to identify the funding source,” Dimock said, for the third phase of hotel rooms until just days before PACEM had to leave the center. An additional CARES Act funding stream was located, and the remaining people moved into hotel rooms after the center closed on June 3. The men will stay there through the summer, as long as funding remains accessible.
The challenges the pandemic poses for the housing security network in Charlottesville are far from over, though.
“Most experts are predicting a resurgence (in COVID-19 cases) when temperatures go back down. In congregate settings, you already have things like a strain of the flu sweep through or different ailments like that,” Whitehead said. ”The big thing for PACEM in particular is we’re going to have to find another stationary site similar to Key Rec in terms of space and locality. It’s going to have to be walking distance from downtown or really close to a bus line.”