Joseph Stinson doesn’t like to stay in one place for too long.
When he leaves the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE) where he’s staying, he takes two buses — routes 65 and 70 — to get to Sacred Heart, where he eats the one meal he’ll have that day. They have the best soup in the city, in his opinion, and serve enough food to last him.
Sometimes, he walks around Lake Union, where there is plenty of space between people.
“Food is still an issue and we don’t want to get cabin fever,” Stinson said. “When you’ve been homeless for a while, you’re so used to roving from place to place just to get the simplest things done. It’s hard to halt that.”
But going out in the age of coronavirus can be an unsettling experience when people clock you as a potential threat: One woman screamed at Stinson at the bus station and continued to harass him on board.
“She was saying that I’m the reason, and she was calling me cuss words,” Stinson said. “I just shut her down. I put in my headphones and started listening to music. I didn’t want to give in to the fear.”
As long as there is food, the 20 people at the shelter don’t have to spend too much time outside if they don’t want to. SHARE operates out of churches, which the governor ordered shut in March. It’s expanded the hours that people can stay inside, rather than making them leave promptly in the morning and come back in the evening.
It’s one of many adjustments people in self-managed encampments and their hosts have made to adapt to the killer disease that is circulating throughout the community and the world.
Every two hours, the residents go through the facility with a bleach solution, wiping down frequently touched surfaces in the kitchen and counters. They check temperatures; if someone is running a fever, that person goes into isolation until they can get checked out.
So far, no one has gotten ill, Stinson said.
“But every time someone sneezes or coughs ...” he said, trailing off.
The location has enough space to give each resident at least 8 feet between them when they sleep — an improvement over traditional, mat-on-the-floor shelters, where beds can have as few as 6 inches between them.
But despite all of the precautions, Stinson is worried about the day that someone contracts COVID-19.
“It’s just a question of when it’s going to happen,” Stinson said. “That’s part of the stress of being homeless.”
Authorized encampments have made changes as well.
Camp Second Chance, in West Seattle, no longer allows visitors inside the premises in order to control potential infection. Volunteers who build tiny house villages go through the back, said Eric Pattin, the site coordinator.
“You never know who you’re going to get out there,” Pattin said. “We wanted to limit contact with people as much as possible.”
So far, things feel strangely normal, although they do have to sanitize surfaces every three to four hours. There’s plenty of food for the camp — unlike at Stinson’s shelter — but getting some more garbage bags, paper plates and bowls would be welcome.
“Despite what’s going on, nothing’s really changed here in camp,” Pattin said. “No one is panicked. If anything, it’s brought us more together.”
People without shelter are in a very different position.
Rev. Canon Britt Olson preaches at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Ballard. The church used to have a meal program and a SHARE shelter, but both are shut now — SHARE closed its shelter there of its own accord and moved the five people staying there into other shelters. The church had to stop the meal program because many of their volunteers are older and vulnerable to COVID-19.
Three parishioners had already fallen ill with COVID-like symptoms in March, Olson said. The community doesn’t want to have any more. Until churches are allowed to reopen, they’ve been broadcasting their services online, which has been a learning curve for everyone.
“The first week, we were sideways,” Olson said.
While the church and its congregation are adapting, Olson can see that others are suffering. A large group of people experiencing homelessness gather in the Ballard Commons Park, but the meals are gone and so was the Portland Loo, a public toilet. The city closed the loo for roughly a week to deep clean it out of concerns about a Hepatitis A outbreak.
It’s gotten bad, Olson said, but the church is ready to take care of people again as soon as possible.
“We have a kitchen. It would take us three minutes to ramp up serving again if we had the meals and the volunteers,” Olson said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Apr. 8-14, 2020 issue.