Catholic Community Services improves social distancing outside homeless day center

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People line up outside the St. Vincent de Paul Center for mealtime on Monday, April 20, 2020, where signs have been posted on the wall in an effort to encourage social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pioneer Park Coalition is complaining to Catholic Community Services and the city about the lack of social distancing outside the dining hall as people line up for meals.

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After complaints from a community group made up of nearby businesses, the Weigand homeless day center in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood is implementing new procedures to promote social distancing in its mealtime lines.

The Pioneer Park Coalition became concerned about the tight crowds of people experiencing homelessness lining up outside the center each day as the number of positive coronavirus cases in the community began skyrocketing late last week.

“We’re concerned that there’s going to be an outbreak down there; we need to do everything we can to prevent it,” said Scott Howell, a member of the group’s board of directors.

Michelle Miller, administrative director with the Pioneer Park Coalition, sent an email late last week to Catholic Community Services and others, asking them to “put markers and signage outside of St. [Vincent de Paul Dining Hall] and the Weigand Center” to promote social distancing.

“I’ve seen at grocery stores tape marks that are 6 feet apart,” she noted. “Would something like that be a possibility to do?”

After working with the Pioneer Park Coalition, Catholic Community Services, which operates the center, implemented a number of changes Monday to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The service provider has posted signs at the entrance to the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall on the 200 South and Rio Grande sides of the building explaining the need to stay apart from others, said Cynthia Mecklenburg, director of human resources and communications with Catholic Community Services. More signs are being added on Rio Grande Street by the gate to the Weigand Homeless Resource Center, she said.

When it comes to meal delivery, Mecklenburg noted that staffers have marked X’s on the sidewalk 6 feet apart so people don’t crowd one another. Security is also walking around the building every hour to remind clients about social distancing.

“Our clients tell our staff all the time how grateful they are for the services we continue to provide and that they are thankful that they have not been forgotten,” she wrote in an email. “However, many of our clients at the Weigand Center struggle with mental health issues that make it more difficult for them to follow the social distancing guidelines we have in place.”

The need for social distancing has posed particular problems for homeless service providers in overnight shelters and day shelters alike — facilities that are often characterized by close quarters filled with dozens of others seeking refuge from the elements. In those conditions, it can be difficult to stop the spread once one person has contracted the virus.

In the South Salt Lake men’s resource center, for example, which serves about 300 people experiencing homelessness, the total number of coronavirus diagnoses has increased rapidly since the first case was confirmed there at the beginning of the month. As of Monday, 95 men at the center had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Those individuals have been moved to a county isolation facility, while those who have tested negative remain at the men’s resource center and are receiving health screenings twice a day, the county said last week.

There are also three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the unsheltered homeless population.

The Salt Lake City area’s three new homeless resource centers, one of which is operated by Catholic Community Services, have been taking precautions to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Staffers there are wiping down surfaces frequently and are splitting meal services to ensure groups don’t gather for too long.

But Bill Tibbitts, an anti-poverty advocate and associate director of the Crossroads Urban Center, said the resource centers “weren’t designed with social distancing in mind.”

"Nobody was thinking about how do we prevent the spread of a pandemic when they were designing these facilities."

As a result, he said, “once you have one infection, you’re going to have 90.”

Tibbitts said he supports the efforts by Salt Lake County to protect the homeless population, including the announcement earlier this month that it was leasing a hotel to house roughly 130 asymptomatic people experiencing homelessness in an effort to allow for better social distancing within those resource centers.

But he said those are short-term efforts that won’t be viable in the longer term.

"What I would hope is that we would figure out how to get more people into permanent apartments because that's more expensive maybe than having an extra bed at a shelter but it's less expensive than putting people in motels, by a long shot."

On Sunday night, 88 people stayed in the hotel, the location of which the county has declined to release. Another 20 were expected to check in Monday.

People experiencing homelessness who begin exhibiting symptoms can stay in one of a number of county-owned buildings that have been mobilized as quarantine centers. About 121 people — the majority of whom are homeless and a few others who simply have no other place to safely quarantine — are currently using those facilities, Salt Lake County spokeswoman Chloe Morroni said Monday.

The county has repeatedly declined to release the location of those centers but confirmed that one is at the Holladay Lions Center in Millcreek after the city provided that information to residents in an email last week.

— Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this article