After influx of coronavirus cases, Anchorage shelter implements changes

Brother Francis Shelter has new protocol in place following more than 60 positive COVID-19 tests
Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage.
Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 1, 2020 at 12:01 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Changes are underway at one of the city’s largest homeless shelters after a large outbreak of coronavirus cases.

At Brother Francis Shelter, several steps have been taken to help keep both clients of the shelter and others in the community safer during the coronavirus pandemic after several dozen people there tested positive for the virus.

“It’s first really important to recognize that this has been a pretty fluid situation, and a very challenging situation,” said Lisa Aquino of Catholic Social Services, which runs Brother Francis Shelter. Aquino said CSS had been preparing for an emergency over an outbreak since the start of the pandemic. “But until you’re in that situation, you don’t know exactly how it’s going to look or feel, or what’s going to happen.”

Changes to BFS include new wash stations for the shelter, more social distancing and no new guests allowed, for now. The shelter hasn’t allowed any new clients in since the day the first positive case was identified. At the same time, however, the impacts of coronavirus are increasing homelessness in the community, according to CSS.

“We’re really trying to keep our bubble of people at BFS small and pretty closed off so that we can keep them safe, and the rest of the community safe,” said Aquino, who also noted that the homelessness rate across the country has increased by about 30 percent since the start of the pandemic.

A homeless shelter poses a particular set of problems for those trying to keep its visitors safe: In this case, you have dozens of people from around the state living in the same place. While their beds are separated by six feet, they share the same main space, and guests visit places all around town, only to return to a large group of people staying under the same roof.

“It depends largely on the shelter and the way that it’s set up,” Aquino said. “These are folks who are staying inside together. Of course, we asked everybody to be as socially distant as possible, and to wear masks.

“We used to be at 240 people a night, at capacity,” she added. “When there are 240 people in there, that is a very crowded place; people are sleeping next to each other. We knew back in March that that wasn’t a safe option, so we moved to reduce our numbers, and people are sleeping six feet apart.”

Still, there’s only so much the group can do, though Aquino said it will have help with assistance from CARES Act funding.

“The clients and staff at Brother Francis Shelter are really sticking together,” said Tricia Teasely, also of CSS. “This is a tough time for them. But when you put names with someone who’s tested positive, it changes things.”

CSS and Brother Francis Shelter are in need of donations, particular single-serve breakfasts and lunches; to-go snacks; towels; and single-ply blankets. Visit the Catholic Social Services website for more information.

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