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Nancy Baglietto: Alone together and together we will persevere

Nancy Baglietto

Business parking lots are empty, streets are vacant of cars, and parks are without people. While the world feels shut down and frozen in place as individuals and families self-quarantine in their homes, Hospitality House, as essential workers, continues to respond by helping those in need.

As most of our community is aware, Hospitality House operates the only year-round emergency shelter program for our general homeless population in Nevada County. Our staff is made up of real, everyday people who live here locally. I consider our team family and my family is risking their own livelihood each day to help the lives of others and would not have it any other way. Our shelter normally provides overnight sanctuary to 69 people, but things are far from normal right now. With COVID-19 slowly proliferating into our county, like elsewhere around the world, we’ve had to take a hard look at how we deliver our services. Our protocols have had to be adjusted to best protect not only our staff, but the people we serve, many of whom are fragile, high risk and already physically compromised due to life on the streets.

Some of our immediate program changes have included increased sanitation – from hourly disinfecting to mandating frequent handwashing for 20 seconds or more. We have also had to discontinue shelter visits and tours, eliminate our volunteer program, and implement social distancing protocols to ensure six feet of separation between shelter guests. Some of our social distancing efforts were accomplished by relocating guests into motels through collaboration and partnership with Nevada County and its Public Health department. At both the shelter and motels, individuals are directed to “shelter in place.”

In the blink of an eye, Utah’s Place became so much more than an overnight shelter. And Hospitality House went from operating one physical shelter to providing case management and program services to multiple shelter sites around the clock, seven days a week, helping more people in increasingly complex ways than ever before. As we spring forward into May, I don’t see Hospitality House’s work slowing down. Our outreach team, which works in close partnership with the County’s Homeless Outreach and Medical Engagement (HOME) team, is out there on the streets every day, identifying people in crisis, disseminating basic hygiene and sanitation kits, and providing access to food and linkage to medical treatment – with the goal of getting them into shelter.

… “shelter in place” means something different for homeless individuals than those who are “sheltering in place” in a home of their own. In the end, we are all just people – trying to get along.

Understandably, a recent 2020 quarantine study completed by the Department of Psychological Medicine in response to this pandemic, found that quarantine can cause substantial short and long-term side effects, including trauma-related mental health disorder, psychological distress, acute stress disorder, alcohol abuse or dependency symptoms, avoidance behaviors, vigilant handwashing and avoidance of crowds, anger, socioeconomic distress, and anxiety. Some of us may have fallen into one or more of these categories ourselves during the pandemic, me and staff included. But these feelings of insecurity, uncertainty and gut-wrenching fear are often amplified when you are homeless and “shelter in place” means something different for homeless individuals than those who are “sheltering in place” in a home of their own. In the end, we are all just people – trying to get along.

In the wake of the pandemic and need to self-isolate, our homeless community is once again required to be resilient “and then some,” but that kind of intense, relentless fortitude is hard to maintain when you are already tired. The physiological damage that comes with isolation can be significant but for people who already feel socially isolated, the effects can be detrimental. This is just one of many reasons why our case management services are so essential right now, especially around mental health counseling, to ensure people are staying mentally and physically well as we work through this pandemic together.

Joe Naake, Outreach Manager, recently shared that, “There is a wide array of emotion out there. Some people are scared and anxious, while others are frustrated by not being able to be in the community.”

In response to the Governor’s directive to isolate, we’ve had no choice but to suspend 300 volunteer positions. These volunteers are core to our identity and came to our shelter six nights a week to make nutritious and delicious homecooked meals for our guests. This function has now fallen largely on staff and Culinary Program Manager Chris Fagan, who has now had to transition full time to help close the gap. We’re fortunate that Lake Wildwood’s Oak Clubhouse is donating their labor on the weekends to make meals. We’ve received added food support from Interfaith Food Ministries, the Nevada County Food Bank, BriarPatch Food Co-Op, SPD Markets, Grocery Outlet, Friar Tuck’s and other local restaurants. Thankfully, our volunteer food groups continue to support where they can albeit in different ways than before. But shifting into a 24/7 operation requires more food, more supplies and more financial assistance.

I was chatting with our Shelter Manager Janella Kirkman the other day as she and her staff work double time to ensure the safety of our guests. She shared with me, “I show up to work every day with a ‘We got this’ attitude, even when I’m shaking inside.”

Janella does her best to remain optimistic for her family, our guests and the employees she manages. “I believe that things are the way they are even when they are hard,” she added. “As long as we continue to support each other in a compassionate way, we will all get through it.”

I share all of this today to assure our community and friends that Hospitality House is doing everything we can to proactively protect our community. We continue to follow the recommendations and direction of Public Health and the CDC and make programmatic adjustments as needed. Just this week, Public Health toured our shelter for the second time—in our joint effort to keep people as safe as possible. Even through our service expansion and temporarily loss of our incredible volunteers, we remain strong because the need to do so is great. We will continue to stand tough and move ahead.

These are difficult times for all. It isn’t easy to remain in isolation — just as it isn’t easy for our team to step up to the frontlines each day, but we’ll get through this together, standing six feet apart, alone.

To learn how to best help Hospitality House during the pandemic, visit hhshelter.org.

Nancy Baglietto serves as executive director for Hospitality House, with previous executive experience for agencies focusing on homeless people, homeless animals and the parks they use.

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