‘We’ve Only Started to See the Beginning’: Homeless Shelters Coping With Coronavirus

Mar 27, 2020

Homeless shelters around Fairbanks are changing some of the ways they do business to prevent spreading the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. That includes screening people for symptoms of COVID-19 and requiring them to maintain six feet of social distancing. But those measures have presented new challenges for the shelters.


Homeless shelters in Fairbanks and elsewhere in Alaska have for months been coping with steep state budget cuts and rising demand for services. And now they’re facing a whole new set of challenges related to concerns over the spread of coronavirus.

The Fairbanks Rescue Mission, on the city's south side.
Credit Fairbanks Rescue Mission

“We have stopped all public access to the shelter,” says Fairbanks Rescue Mission Development Director Krystel Marino. The staff also now screen every person who comes in and asks to stay at the shelter, she added.

“We have a checklist, like ‘Do you have a cough? Do you have a fever?’ ” she said, “and then we take the temperature.”

Marino says anyone who replies yes to those questions and others about COVID-19 symptoms are sent to the hospital or area clinics for tests. And she says those who’ve been diagnosed with the disease or show its symptoms must stay in the rescue mission’s quarantine or isolation rooms.

“As of right now, we don’t have any positive cases, or any known contact with any of those who are positive,” she said in an interview Thursday.

City Housing and Homeless Coordinator Mike Sanders says none of other half-dozen or so shelters in town have had found anyone who’s contracted COVID-19. But he says some have had to take temporary precautions.

“The people that were tested, if they were symptomatic, they’re staying in quarantine until their symptoms are gone,” he said.

About 80 people were staying at the Fairbanks Rescue Mission this week – about half its usual capacity of 160. Shelter staff have moved beds 6 feet apart, to comply with social distancing guidelines, but beds can be set up in other spaces, such as the shelter’s chapel.
Credit Fairbanks Rescue Mission

Sanders says the city’s homeless shelters conduct their COVID-19-prevention efforts with the help of public-health agencies and clinics and Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. And he says the shelters all have designated space for quarantine and isolation to keep those suspected of having the disease or awaiting tests separate from others at the shelter.

“Y’know they’ve always had places where they could put folks who weren’t feeling well, to keep them from everybody else,” he said. “But they (the shelters) have really ramped-up.”

Sanders says all of the city’s shelters have taken many steps to treat homeless people who are suffering from the disease while protecting those who aren’t. But he says there are some who won’t be helped by those efforts.

“I mean, some of those folks have been out there literally for decades,” he said in an interview Thursday. “And they just are not interested in any services.”

But most homeless people do seek help, especially those whose lives have been turned upside-down by a crisis like the loss of a job. Marino says there’s been a lot of that lately, based on what Rescue Mission officials are hearing recently from people who’ve asked to stay at the shelter, which now has about 30 women and children and about 60 men.

“But those numbers are kind of going up by the day, as we see people who are losing their jobs or housing,” he said.

Marino says the economic impact caused by growing concern over the coronavirus may mean the number of homeless people in Fairbanks will continue to grow.

“I think as it progresses and the city continues to be shut down and businesses shut down, I think we’ve only started to see the beginning of it.”

Editor's note: The Fairbanks Rescue Mission and other organizations that are part of the Fairbanks Housing and Homeless Coalition need donations now more than ever. To find out how to help, contact the coalition at fairbankshomeless@gmail.com or contact Mike Sanders, the city's Housing and Homeless coordinator, at msanders@fairbanks.us or (907) 459-6794.