‘We don’t shy from crisis’: CCS keeps serving the vulnerable during coronavirus outbreak

The sleeping mats at St. Martin de Porres Shelter in Seattle are usually placed just 6–12 inches apart (as seen in this photo) to serve 212 men over age 50 each night. Opening an additional shelter for these men has enabled Catholic Community Services to double the space between mats, in an effort to reduce the health risk during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Courtesy Catholic Community Services The sleeping mats at St. Martin de Porres Shelter in Seattle are usually placed just 6–12 inches apart (as seen in this photo) to serve 212 men over age 50 each night. Opening an additional shelter for these men has enabled Catholic Community Services to double the space between mats, in an effort to reduce the health risk during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Courtesy Catholic Community Services

The coronavirus outbreak isn’t stopping Catholic Community Services of Western Washington from serving society’s most vulnerable — including the homeless, the elderly and those with mental health and substance abuse issues.

“We’re employing new ways of business, that’s for sure,” Irene Ward, CCS executive vice president, said March 24.

Every day, 35 CCS staffers meet to discuss the agency’s COVID-19 response. The agency has 3,500 employees and “everybody’s doing something a little bit different,” Ward said.

CCS homeless shelters are working to increase spacing between their overnight guests and have moved some people to temporary quarters to reduce their health risk. More than 100 hotel rooms in King and Pierce counties are available to house the most vulnerable homeless people, Ward said.

For seniors, meal programs switched from sit-down to take-out a few weeks ago, said Peter Nazzal, vice president and director of CCS’ Long Term Care System. Home-care workers are following protective protocols as they continue providing in-person care to the elderly and disabled, while technology is allowing some remote care, such as medication reminders, he said.

CCS network builders, part of the agency’s Catholic Collaborative for Poor Families and Communities, are coordinating with parishes on a variety of outreach projects, such as calling the homebound so they don’t feel so isolated or sewing protective masks for medical workers.

And CCS staff members who provide mental health and substance abuse recovery services are working at home, using technology to stay in contact with their clients.

Finding ways to continue providing services to vulnerable populations during the outbreak is “like a Rubik’s Cube that we’re trying to put together,” said Will Rice, vice president and agency director for CCS’ Northwest Region. “We don’t shy from crisis and that’s exactly what this is.”

Here is a look at some of the ways CCS is serving those in need during the outbreak.

Sheltering the homeless

At St. Martin de Porres Shelter in downtown Seattle, the 212 men over age 50 who spend the night normally sleep on mats placed just 6–12 inches apart, said Bill Hallerman, vice president and agency director for King County. But on March 13, the arrivals hall at King County International Airport was opened as a shelter to accommodate about half the men from St. Martin de Porres, Hallerman said.

“This enables us to double that space between folks, which is a really crucial thing,” he said. “The staff was amazing. They opened that shelter within 24 hours.”

In addition to moving men to the airport location, some of the most vulnerable men, in their 70s and 80s and with health issues (but not coronavirus), have been moved into hotels in the Seattle area for at least a month.

“The idea is to get folks who are fragile out of there,” Hallerman said. “We really feel like that saves lives.”

Some homeless women and families are also being housed at the hotels. King County “has been really great,” Hallerman said, providing money to pay for some of the rooms. In addition, a $50,000 Starbucks donation for coronavirus response is being used to help defray the cost of the rooms, he said.

To increase the number of beds available for homeless women in Seattle, CCS has opened the overnight shelter at its main office seven nights a week, rather than the usual five nights, Hallerman said. The staff regularly turns the building’s cafeteria and two large conference rooms into a safe place for women to spend the night.

Staying connected to clients

Creative solutions are also coming into play in CCS’ Northwest Region.

The region serves people in Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties with programs in three main areas: substance abuse disorders, children’s mental health, and homeless services/permanent supportive housing, said Will Rice, the region’s vice president and agency director.

“We have probably a couple thousand people in addiction recovery services right now,” Rice said.

The biggest challenge is that 90 percent of CCS services for addiction and mental health usually are offered in-office, he said. But the agency has received governmental permission to provide services remotely, so staff members working at home are able to stay connected to their clients by phone or through other technology, he explained.

At the region’s two supportive housing buildings for formerly homeless people, the front desk continues to be staffed 24-7 by CCS employees, Rice said.

“Our staff is of course unbelievable and almost unflappable,” he said. “We haven’t had any disruption in our homeless and housing services.”

Since his handful of housing case managers aren’t needed for their usual work of getting people into housing (no one’s going to property management appointments right now, he noted), “we’re kind of repurposing some of our housing case managers to get into a little bit of shelter work,” Rice said. They’re helping at a newly created emergency shelter in Bellingham to supplement the community’s small, overcrowded shelter.

“People have just come together and said what we have isn’t working; we need to do something different,” Rice said. “We’re excited to play a role in that.”

Caring for the elderly and homebound

The Long Term Care System has instituted “a lot of changes to help slow down the virus,” Nazzal said in an email.

The agency developed training for their staff on using personal protective equipment for in-person care and “we are just implementing a major change to home care, where our caregivers will be able to provide remote care to clients (similar to telehealth),” he said.

Off-site care can include medication reminders, wellness checks, shopping, meal preparation and laundry, he said. That will reduce the frequency of visits and the length of contact between caregivers and clients, Nazzal explained.

Changes have also been made to system’s meal delivery program to limit contact, he added.

The work of CCS under unprecedented circumstances has been both challenging and rewarding.

“At the end of the day, it’s exhausting but it’s not disheartening,” Rice said. “We’re called to this particular work for a reason [and] at times like this you go, ‘Oh yeah, I get it,’” he added.

Erin Maguire, a CCS network builder, said she has been fielding a lot of calls these days. Some people are grateful that they can help CCS — “to be able to do something at this time gives them peace and calmness,” Maguire said.

Others call to thank CCS “for being the hands and feet of Jesus at this time,” she said. Despite the uncertainty and changes in daily life, “there’s some goodness and some beauty that’s happening.”

Rice agreed. “In these horrible times, there’s always these silver linings about how our communities rally around the most vulnerable,” he said.

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.
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Jean Parietti es editora local para el sitio web NWCatholic.org y destacada editora de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic. Pueden contactarle en: jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.