By Adam Rogan, The Journal Times

Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” order is simple enough to follow. If you have a home, stay in it, and only leave to take solo walks, to get food or for medical needs.

But what if you don’t have a home?

According to the order, which took effect at 8 a.m. Wednesday, “Individuals experiencing homelessness are exempt from” having to stay at their home or place of residence, since they don’t have one. But, the order says that people experiencing homelessness are, like always, “strongly urged to obtain shelter.”

HALO, Racine County’s largest homeless shelter, has a maximum capacity of about 120 people at 2000 DeKoven Ave., and there were about 80 people living there Tuesday night. With a ban on groups of 10 or more statewide — and a similar advisement in place across the country — it is imprudent to have more than 80 people living in one building.

The shelter’s plan is twofold, and seemingly contradictory:

  1. Get people out; and 2., keep people in.

For the first step, HALO has encouraged those who have family or friends living nearby to stay with them for a short period. Having fewer people in the building lowers the risk of the virus spreading rapidly if it reaches the shelter. And HALO has been promising to hold guests’ spots in the shelter for longer than usual, for the time being.

Usually, they would be given “passes,” saying the shelter would hold their spot for a weekend or maybe up to two weeks. Those passes have been extended to keep HALO’s population down, according to Executive Director Gai Lorenzen.

Lorenzen said that she is considering trying to place some residents in motels for the time being, but that plan had not been carried out as of Wednesday.

For those who can’t get into housing quickly, however, HALO is trying to keep them inside and have them leave the property as little as possible, excluding for essential needs like doctor appointments or to pick up medication.

“We obviously want them to go to required medical appointments … We don’t want to impede that,” Lorenzen said.

But, allowing people to leave as much as they usually do increases the chances of them coming into contact with the novel coronavirus, and thus increases the risk of patrons bringing it back to the shelter and spreading it among other HALO residents and staff.

Outside or inside

Guidance regarding the pandemic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out what is generally understood among those who work with people who are homeless:

“Lack of housing contributes to poor health outcomes, and linkage to permanent housing should continue to be a priority. In the context of COVID-19, the risks associated with sleeping outdoors in an encampment setting are different than with staying indoors in a congregate setting such as an emergency shelter or other congregate living facility. Outdoor settings may allow people to increase distance between themselves and others.

“However, sleeping outdoors often does not provide protection from the environment, quick access to hygiene and sanitation facilities, or connection to health care. The balance of risks should be considered for each individual experiencing unsheltered homelessness.”

The CDC’s guidance also included advisement for outreach staff, informing them that they should greet clients from at least six feet away, always wear gloves to handle clients’ belongings, and to provide surgical masks to any client with a cough.

Upon intake, HALO is taking the temperature and asking additional health-related questions for all incoming guests, an extra precaution taken because of the pandemic.

Top photo: Willie LaGrone smokes a cigarette outside the Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization (HALO) shelter on March 15. He said he is trying to keep the shelter as clean as possible amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but is not too worried that the virus will reach him inside the shelter. (Adam Rogan, The Journal Times)