Of all of the Monterey County residents facing challenges from the coronavirus, its homeless are among the most vulnerable. For them, even normal times are difficult. Yet now, the pandemic and the shelter-in-place orders have put homeless people at even greater risk.
Gathering for Women, the homeless women’s resource center on El Dorado Street, still looks the same. The clean white walls and sterile cafeteria counters are still there as is the sign that reads, “Begin each day with a grateful heart.” But gone are the hot lunches and ability to eat together at a table. For the forty or so women who depend on the center, Gathering for Women, sadly, is no longer a place to gather.
“We've had to cut back almost all other of our services simply because we can't have gathering in one place,” Gathering’s Executive Director Staci Alziebler-Perkins says,
The center is still providing hot breakfasts, lunches to-go and showers. But among the services that have been reduced are health screenings, clothing donations and help with finding housing.
“They have really nowhere to go. They stay in their cars or they stay outside…but they have nowhere to go to shelter in place," Alzeibler-Perkins adds.
How to shelter in place when you have no place is a problem Glorietta Rowland is trying to solve. Rowland is a management analysist with the Monterey County Department of Social Services. She is trying to find shelter for the homeless, particularly for those most at risk of the virus.
“The priority at this point is for persons who are experiencing homelessness that are highly, highly vulnerable, medically fragile in the target population of over 65," said Rowland.
Monterey County is preparing to open temporary shelters in Marina, Salinas, South County and at the Monterey Fairgrounds. The City of Monterey has heard from at least a dozen hotels and motels willing to house people who may need to be isolated, including the homeless. But Rowland says it hasn’t been easy securing shelter because neighbors are afraid.
"People are fearful of housing, a population that may be at more at risk," Rowland said.
Monterey Police Department Lieutenant Jake Pinkas has worked with the homeless community. He says it is not just a case of having no place to stay. The very act of social distancing is traumatizing for many homeless.
“They find comfort in being close to the people that they trust. And the number of people that they trust is pretty minimal," said Pinkas.
So, for example, when food is provided, Pinkas says it is natural for the homeless to want to find a place to eat close together.
“I think it's just difficult for them to. It's a total 180 from what they're used to,” explained Pinkas.
Pinkas says the city has added facilities specifically designed to help the homeless during the pandemic.
“We've put in hand-washing stations, a couple different places in the city... Lake El Estero, the Transit Plaza,” he said.
There is another hand-washing station across from The Naval Post Graduate School on Del Monte. The city of Monterey is also keeping restrooms open near some parks, even though those parks are nearly empty now. And the restrooms are being sanitized more often to protect the homeless from the virus.
Back at Gathering for Women, Staci Alziebler-Perkins works with a skeleton crew. What was a staff of 50 volunteers is now down to 5.
Alziebler-Perkins says, “[It’s] not an easy situation. But without us, they would, they really would not have much at all.”
Alziebler-Perkins says what gives her hope during these difficult times is the warmth and compassion of the volunteers at Gathering for Women, who even during a pandemic, find a way to continue their important work.
As a note, Gathering for Women is one of KAZU’s many organizations that supports KAZU.