GREEN BAY — Since opening its doors for the season on Nov. 1, 2019, St. John’s Homeless Shelter has been operating over capacity, said Alexa Priddy, director of community engagement. But it was the COVID-19 crisis that brought St. John’s to the decision to open an overflow shelter on March 18 at Spring Lake Church in downtown Green Bay.
Both shelter locations are now open 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the COVID-19 crisis.
“This shelter season has been the season with the highest numbers, and then to add this global health crisis on top of it, it just has … put a stress on our community,” said Priddy. She emphasized that “right now, our shelter numbers have been higher than they’ve ever been in our organization’s history.” St. John’s opened in November 2005.
“We’ve worked closely with the city and local health officials just to make sure that we were prepared,” she continued. “For us, emergency preparedness is something that we think about every day, and this is an emergency crisis we couldn’t have prepared for.”
Capacity at St. John’s Homeless Shelter, located at 411 St. John St., is considered to be 84 guests. On opening day Nov. 1, Priddy said they served 100 guests. On March 15, three days before opening the second location, St. John’s served 123 guests.
It was Spring Lake Church which first approached St. John’s. “They’ve just been a great partner and supporter for a while,” said Priddy. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, they had discontinued services at their downtown location at 301 N. Adams St., “and they were looking for how to help,” she continued. That was Monday, March 16. Two days later, on March 18, the shelter opened at Spring Lake.
The first night both shelters were open St. John’s served 100 guests, the Silver Lake Church location served 65.
In order to expand their shelter services, St. John’s has temporarily closed its daytime centers, the Micah Center and Wellspring.
Already last summer, during St. John’s sleep program, Priddy said they started to experience an increase in numbers. She attributes the increase to the “complex needs in our guest population” and a growing number of people in the 18-24 age group, who she estimated today make up 25% of St. John’s guest population.
It’s “incredibly sad” because they are “battling” a history of broken homes and relationships, she said, emphasizing, “They didn’t have that healthy start to their lives.”
COVID-19 concerns have added an additional level of stress to the Green Bay community’s most vulnerable population — the homeless.
“I just think the fear around this crisis and the uncertainty, that has really caused people to seek shelter and seek that support now,” Priddy said.
Since February, St. John’s has been operating in accordance with guidelines established for COVID-19 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for homeless shelters. In the event that a guest does arrive who has knowingly been exposed to someone with COVID-19, the person will be quarantined for 14 days in a quarantine area already so designated by St. John’s. Priddy added, “We have lots of disinfecting all through the day.”
During the COVID-19 crisis, having a second location not only allows St. John’s to serve more people, but also provides more space so guests can be separated into smaller groups. “We’re trying to practice social distance in a homeless shelter environment,” she said.
They have also split the St. John’s staff between the two locations. That’s particularly important, said Priddy, in case a staff member did contract the virus, not all staff members would be in one location.
St. John’s is also allowing only a core of 10 to 15 volunteers to help right now. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re just not having lots of people in and out,” said Priddy.
Now that both shelters are open 24/7, that means there’s also a need for more food. St. John’s has put the word out through social media that they invite local restaurants to partner with them, either by making direct donations of food that perhaps they won’t be able to use because of the COVID-19 crisis or perhaps donors might step up to help pay for the cost of the food in order to compensate the restaurants, said Priddy.
She said that Spring Lake Church members committed to providing four nights of meals. Pablo’s Mexican Grill & Cantina was the first restaurant to offer food, followed by the Golden Basket, The Pancake Place, Al’s Hamburgers, Vibe Nutrition, Bangkok Garden, The Cannery, Copper State Brewery, Village Grill, Schlotzsky’s Deli and Gallagher’s Pizza.
St. John’s is looking for volunteers who can help transport guests to their jobs. That particular day, on March 19, Priddy had driven a guest to a job interview, and he got the job. “It’s nice when we have those positive signs,” she said.
Priddy also encourages people who would like to help see what needs they have on their “wish list” at stjohnhomelessshelter.org.
“We’ve just been extremely humbled by the support we’ve gotten from the community,” said Priddy. “In a time of such uncertainty and fear, in a way, I’ve just been shocked by how many people have just wanted to do something … that’s our Green Bay community.”