ANN ARBOR, MI — The Delonis Center homeless shelter in downtown Ann Arbor hasn’t had a COVID-19 case since March when two guests tested positive.
While shelters elsewhere have had outbreaks and Washtenaw County has seen several thousand coronavirus infections, the Delonis Center’s seven-month streak is sort of shocking, said Dan Kelly, executive director of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, the nonprofit that runs the shelter.
He’s proud of it and hopes to keep it up as the shelter braces for more guests with cold weather approaching.
Dozens of homeless people staying at Ann Arbor hotel to be relocated to shelters
Kelly credits both the shelter’s staff and guests for staying vigilant amid the ongoing pandemic, following strong health and safety protocols to guard against the deadly virus.
“We’re doing everything in our power to keep people safe,” he said, noting the shelter requires masks.
Shortly after the pandemic hit in March, when masks were hard to come by, one of the shelter’s guests found a video online showing how to make masks out of furnace filters, and then started making them for others, Kelly said.
That’s one example of how much the shelter’s guests want to keep each other safe, he said.
The shelter now has a large stockpile ranging from cloth to surgical to N95 masks, as well as plastic face shields.
As the shelter prepares to open its seasonal overnight warming center this Sunday night, Nov. 1, one of many ways it plans to keep up the fight heading into the cold fall season and winter is a new electrostatic sprayer backpack.
“It’s like Ghostbusters,” Kelly said, likening it to the proton packs worn by the heroes in the “Ghostbusters” movies.
But instead of busting ghosts, the shelter’s staff will be using it to ward off invisible virus particles, spraying disinfectant. Kelly said he got the idea from a homeless shelter in Grand Rapids.
“We’re just trying everything,” he said.
Not only will it have a positive effect in terms of cleanliness, but seeing it in action will make people feel safer, he said.
“It looks like a big paint sprayer,” he said, adding it will spray a non-toxic disinfectant.
“You do clear the room out and let it settle,” he said, adding they’ll wait about a half hour before returning to a room after spraying.
The shelter is bracing for an influx of homeless guests who are being cleared out of an Ann Arbor hotel.
The last 25 still staying at Red Roof Inn on Plymouth Road will be relocated in the coming days, some transitioning to the Delonis Center on Sunday night and others going into a rotating church shelter program starting Monday, Nov. 2.
Activist group Washtenaw Camp Outreach has protested the move, questioning whether transitioning to congregate overnight shelter — as opposed to people having their own 24/7 rooms — is safe amid the pandemic and with winter approaching.
Thanks to additional funding that’s been preliminarily approved, the Shelter Association is now planning to place some medically vulnerable clients in new hotel rooms, Kelly said, noting some who’ve stayed at the hotel do have serious health issues.
The Shelter Association also is planning to operate a daytime warming center seven days a week, Kelly said, mentioning a potential partnership with the Ann Arbor District Library.
There have been talks of setting up a daytime warming center at the Westgate Branch Library, AADL spokesman Rich Retyi said.
The plan could change if the association can find another site with both day and night accommodations, Kelly said.
There will be similar safety protocols and social distancing to guard against COVID-19 at all shelter spaces, Kelly said, adding they will have good air flow and ventilation.
For the seasonal overnight warming center at the four-story Delonis Center, 312 W. Huron St., there will be 31 mats — about half what there is in a normal year — laid down on the first and second floors, with about an eight-foot separation between them, Kelly said. He’s also looking into potentially putting plastic barriers between mats as an added precaution.
In the year-round residential rooms on upper levels, there were two people per room until not long ago when it went up to three, and it could go up to four if needed, Kelly said.
Across all shelter spaces, there will be capacity for 130 people in November, which should be more than enough based on the shelter’s modeling, Kelly said. And with overflow space for overnight shelter possibly at the county’s Meri Lou Murray Recreation Center, capacity will be closer to 190, he said.
The Shelter Association is still looking for additional offsite congregate shelter space that can provide both daytime and nighttime accommodations heading into December.
The ideal space would serve 50-75 people at one time with adequate social distancing, the Shelter Association said earlier this month. Kelly said he wants to make sure no one is turned away this winter amid the pandemic.
Teresa Gillotti, director of the county’s Office of Community and Economic Development, said this week the county has not experienced the pandemic-induced increase in homelessness some were worried about, and eviction moratoriums and eviction-prevention support seem to have helped.
The Shelter Association has served over 750 people since March, Kelly said. That includes sheltering over 500, housing over 120, and conducting over 40,000 health screenings.
During an average winter season, the Delonis Center can shelter up to 145 people overnight. Due to required social distancing during the pandemic, capacity has been lowered to 70, per the Washtenaw County Health Department.
Biweekly COVID-19 testing has been in place for the past month, and weekly testing starts this week. Clients are still screened prior to admittance and tested as necessary, and anyone who shows signs of COVID-19 are immediately transported to Michigan Medicine for evaluation.
While the Delonis Center operated a nightly drop-in shelter earlier this year with mats spaced out on its cafeteria floor, what’s coming starting this Sunday night will be a new test to see if the shelter can stay coronavirus-free.
“We’re definitely going to have more than we’ve had before,” Kelly said of the number of guests in the building during the pandemic. “We’re going to be diligent through winter.”
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