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ST. PETERSBURG — It was only 8:30 p.m. and barely dark when a group of homeless men gathered for bedtime at a shelter run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Spread out before them in the parking lot were rows of black mattresses spaced six feet apart, like graves in a cemetery.
The math used to be simple for those who operate the shelter at 15th Street N in St. Petersburg — 200 beds, 200 people. Then came the recommendations for social distancing as a way to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
St. Vincent de Paul has been forced to turn its parking lot, right beneath an Interstate 375 overpass, into emergency sleeping quarters. About 70 men slept there three nights in a row, their snores mingling with the rumble of traffic overhead.
This drastic measure is an exception. Other shelters have ramped up cleaning regimens to keep the virus at bay but say they have no way to quarantine people in the event someone tests positive for the coronavirus. Most are set up to accommodate as many people as possible. The Salvation Army shelter in Tampa is full, with some dormitory rooms packed with as many as 20 people.
“They’re safer in here than they are on the streets,” said area commander Capt. Andy Miller III.
So far, no cases of the virus have been reported in local shelters. But nonprofits fear it’s just a matter of time and they’ve been calling on local leaders and the federal government to come up with more concrete plans for an outbreak among the homeless, said Antoinette Hayes-Triplett, executive director of the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative.
“How do we quarantine? How do we shelter in place if somebody displays symptoms?” Hayes-Triplett said. “Everybody is in the midst of figuring this out.”
Mops and buckets are everywhere inside the St. Vincent de Paul South Pinellas shelter. The emergency sleeping quarters are part of an overhaul to keep guests safe, said chief executive Michael Raposa. By moving the men outside, Raposa has been able to move in more women and maintain a safe distance between each person.
But he worries what he’ll do if social distancing lasts into the hot and humid months.
“The only good news is it’s not July and it’s not 100 degrees out,” Raposa said. “The homeless are the most vulnerable of our entire population. Their immune systems are horrendously compromised.”
Shortly after his name was called by volunteers, Allen Nason shuffled through the shelter gates on his walker and found his parking lot mattress. The staff had placed his possessions there, in a plastic bag.
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Nason, 66, covered his mattress with a sheet and a brown blanket. Two minutes later, he was under the covers. A backpack and a bottle of hand sanitizer hung from his walker. So did an upside-down baseball cap, doubling as pouch to hold two packets of cigarettes and a pair of spectacles. His socks were stuffed into a pair of brown moccasins.
He has been homeless for about 14 years, he said, because of alcoholism. He’s heard about the coronavirus and how those with respiratory ailments are more at risk. He’s worried because he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
But he he likes his new sleeping arrangements.
“I’d rather be out here in the fresh air. When it gets hot, I’ll sleep on top of the sheets.”
Inside the shelter, Arlene Johnson, 52, helped clear away folding tables to make room for mattresses where about 30 women sleep.
Her son moved out and she lost benefits. Then she ended up in the hospital. She couldn’t afford her rent any more and became homeless.
The new rules for sleeping in the shelter remind her of when she worked in a daycare and made sure children were separated while taking a nap. She said she’s not worried she’ll get sick.
“We clean, clean, clean, and use bleach water,” she said. “Everybody is washing their hands.”
Those who stay at the shelter get three meals a day, but between meals they’re required to go out into the community where they risk contracting the virus. Chief operating officer Sheila Lopez said she wants to start screening guests with thermometers.
How will the shelter cope if the crisis lasts for months?
“We’ll figure that out when it comes,” Lopez said. “This is better than them being on the street. They have showers and food, and hope and people who love them.”
At the Salvation Army on Florida Avenue in Tampa, people seeking a bed must work some kind of job and save up to 80 percent of their earnings toward getting a place of their own. But with many common employment options now closed, like selling concessions or cleaning at Amalie Arena, those rules are being relaxed, said Miller, the Tampa area commander.
Every guest at the three-story building is screened on their return to see if they have a fever. No one takes temperatures because it’s not required under guidelines set by the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention.
Cleaning operations have been intensified and guests are constantly reminded to use hand sanitizer. But Miller admits it’s hard to keep people separated in dormitory bunk beds. If guests do test positive, he has nowhere to isolate them.
“We’re in a place where we’re dependent on the Department of Health,” Miller said.
Another concern is that local authorities may order people to stay in place for an extended period of time. That would leave the shelter’s resources stretched, he said.
“We will have to come up with options for more food."
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