Holy Grounds to-go breakfast

Holy Grounds volunteer Mohamed Abdi fills juice cups to go along with to-go breakfasts for people in need at Centenary United Methodist Church. The church, which typically serves a breakfast in the morning, chose a breakfast-to-go model due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The Salvation Army switched to to-go meals for its lunch program as well.

MANKATO — Overnight homeless shelters face a difficult quandary as Minnesota grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic: How can someone stay home during the day when they don’t have one?

Mankato’s Connections Shelter and the Salvation Army’s men’s shelter remained open as closures piled up around them last week.

Continuing to provide services for an often overlooked population is a challenge, but shelter coordinators say the nonprofits will keep doing whatever they can for guests.

Connections used grant funding Monday to move its guests into rooms at the Hilton Garden Inn. The $5,000 from Greater Mankato Area United Way and the Mankato Area Foundation will help cover expenses from the move and make quarantining easier, said Connections Co-director Erica Koser.

“If we go under lockdown, they don’t have places to go,” she said. “(Moving) them to hotels, that could help.”

Mass closures had huge impacts on homeless shelters. People experiencing homelessness already don’t have many places to safely spend time during the day. Now there are even fewer options.

And Connections needed volunteers, yet most of its volunteer base is within older age groups considered most at risk for COVID-19. The shelter limited volunteer opportunities for people older than 60 in response.

Connections Shelter Manager Jenn Valimont had a first-time volunteer helping at the shelter Friday. Lynn Kuechle normally works on campus at Minnesota State University, which is shut down, so she worked remotely while volunteering.

“I have some time, so I thought this would be a good use of that,” she said, adding the church she goes to, First Presbyterian, supports the shelter.

Limited space presented another challenge in trying to enforce recommended social distancing. Connections had about 15 guests in its upstairs space at Covenant Family Church, while The Salvation Army has had between nine and 12 in its men’s shelter.

Both nonprofits switched to grab-and-go meals for their breakfast or lunch programs. For other meals, Pappageorge’s, Wooden Spoon and Pub 500 have all delivered free meals for guests at Connections.

After finding out guests wouldn’t have places to go during the day anymore, Connections expanded beyond its evening and overnight hours last week to house guests during the day. For social distancing, Valimont said the shelter had a bed in between guests and spaced beds farther apart in tighter areas.

People experiencing homelessness often have health conditions and circumstances making them more vulnerable to viruses. Koser pointed out many shelter guests have chronic health issues, and all normally spend time in close quarters with other people at community meal programs and the shelters.

Salvation Army workers have had discussions about what to do if a shelter guest comes in with COVID-19 symptoms, said Leslie Johnson, the Mankato nonprofit’s business administrator. She described working through the pandemic as answering a whole lot of “what-ifs and how do you do thats.”

And social service nonprofits could face even bigger hurdles if more people lose their paychecks due to shutdowns, she said.

“We’re doing the best we can to continue to serve families in crisis and at a minimum provide hope,” she said. “There’s going to be a lot of people facing evictions and disconnections if they lose their jobs.”

Both shelters are in need of donations, which can be made online. Just because the need doubles, Johnson pointed out, doesn’t mean the funding does.

With Connections guests now in hotels, staff will still be meeting their food and personal care needs every day. More meals and donations are what’s needed to overcome the uncertainty.

“We know our guests need us here, so we’re trying to do everything we can,” Valimont said.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

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