Yvonne Williams is checking in guests at an overnight shelter in Woodbridge, Va.

“WASH YOUR HANDS! MAKE SURE YOU MAINTAIN YOUR SOCIAL DISTANCE! NO TOUCHING!”

She has everyone’s attention. She used to be an Army drill sergeant.

It’s 6:35 in the evening and the first of two buses just dropped off two dozen homeless men and women looking forward to a night indoors. Since COVID-19 cases are dramatically increasing by the day, the shelter, run by the StreetLight Community Ministries, a, nonprofit that operates the overnight shelter for Prince William County, has been moved to a larger, temporary location in order to comply with new government guidelines for social separation.

The gymnasium of a former high school, now home to county government offices, provides at least twice the room of the regular shelter, allowing tables, chairs, cots and people to stay the recommended six feet apart. Two folding tables are arranged in an L shape, just inside the door of the gym. A large bowl of peppermints, two big pump bottles of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, paper towels and a pile of black latex gloves share space with open notebooks and scattered pens. Seated behind the tables, Williams, the shelter’s director, makes eye contact with each guest as they approach, offering a personal greeting as she scribbles in her book.

“Who are you? Mr. Kimmel? You wash your hands? Very good. How you doing, sir?”

“I’m doing well, yourself?”

“All right. Hello Mr. Johnny, how are you?”

“Very good ma’am.”

“Great. You staying out of trouble? OK, you answered too slow on that. We need to talk. Were you here yesterday Mr. Johnny? You were not?”

“Hello, sir. This is your first night? Your name please. Jared? OK, Mr. Jared, I’m Miss Williams. I am the shelter director. I will do an intake on you after dinner, OK?”

“OK, Mr. Gainy, how are you?”

“How was your day?”

“It was wonderful.”

“I'm doing well. “

“How are you today, sir? Did you wash your hands?”

Once they are checked in, guests fan out into the cavernous gymnasium. Some head for the tables and chairs but most lay claim to one of the 30 cots that are already set up several feet apart. Moveable 6-foot tall partitions separate the cots from the rest of the room and the women from the men. Sixteen folding chairs are spaced out around a big-screen TV set up against the back wall. A row of four microwave ovens, a coffee maker and a phone charging table are lined up against another wall, beneath one of the six basketball nets hanging from above. A lone security guard occupies one of the chairs near the check-in station. The regulars here are getting used to the new surroundings and the new rules.

“For the most part, they are just as confused and concerned as the rest of us,” Williams says. “But they are adjusting.

The gym of a former high school in Prince William, Va., serves as a temporary shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cots are set well apart from each other. (Photo: David Kidd)

Nowhere to Go

As the number of COVID-19 cases rises dramatically across the country, the unsheltered populations are particularly vulnerable. Overall, the homeless tend to be older and more likely to suffer from respiratory illness, heart disease and cancer, putting them at greater risk to the coronavirus. Because nearly everything is shut down, they don’t have access to the libraries and fast food outlets they normally haunt. Empty streets mean they can’t even panhandle. While the rest of society stays at home as they follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, the homeless have no home to go to.

The CDC has however, provided recommendations for mitigating the pandemic’s effects on the homeless, the first line of defense being preparation and prevention. By late March there were already a number of reported cases at shelters around the country, including deaths in California and New York City, the outbreak’s epicenter. Since shelters must enforce social distancing, their only options are to secure more space or turn people away. Empty convention centers, gymnasiums and motels are being used to handle the overflow in a number of cities. But more space means there is a need for more staff, volunteers and resources, putting further strain on already-tight budgets.

Once someone staying at a shelter contracts the virus, they need to be separated from the rest of the population. By late March, several states moved homeless patients to hotel rooms, RVs, trailers and dedicated shelters. When a shelter resident tested positive for the coronavirus in Las Vegas recently, the 500-bed facility had to be shut down. Officials turned a nearby convention center parking lot into a temporary shelter and defended the makeshift accommodations, saying they had little time to prepare. But a chorus of critics pointed out that it was not a good look for a city with thousands of empty hotel rooms.

Individual Struggles

As Williams checks in the last guest, someone turns on the TV. There is no cable available, but a DVD player has been provided and will have to do. Tonight’s feature is Ride Along 2. People approach the front table and take a mint from the bowl and a few squirts of hand sanitizer. A young woman has flipped open her laptop and spread out a small pile of notebooks while her bemused tablemate looks on. She is a student at the local community college.

Williams strides to the center of the room to make her nightly announcements. “I have a couple of things. One person used seven towels last night. Seven. You’re not cleaning up behind yourselves. And I would like to know why. We're in somebody else's home,” The former drill sergeant says. “We are VISITING, and we need to make sure that we act respectably. And respectFULLy. OK?”

A Volvo full of volunteers has just dropped off a dinner of Peruvian chicken with two kinds of sauces. A few residents step up to arrange the large tins, unpack the bags of chips and set out bottles of juice and water. To a newcomer, it can be difficult sometimes to tell the guests from staff. A line begins to form, but everyone seems to have forgotten about social distancing, earning an admonishment from Williams, who tells them to spread out. Everyone shuffles backward, tripling the length of the line and chiding themselves for their momentary lapse.

After dinner, Alex, the college student, is squinting at her computer and flipping through a notebook. “I’m going to school for political science,” she says. “Then I plan on going to law school after that.”

From the time she checked in at 6:30 through the start of quiet time at 10, Alex remains focused on her work, seemingly oblivious to the blaring television and the conversations going on around her. “I like the fact that the local government is actually trying. A lot of people are freaking out. I'm freaking out too,” she says. “But I like that they're trying, that they put us here.”

Since losing her food service job last summer, Alex has focused on graduating at the end of the year. She gets by with help from the college. “They let me go to the food pantry. They gave me a free backpack,” she says. “The school has done a lot for me actually.”

After the campus closed for the rest of the semester, she used the local library until it, too, was shuttered. “So, then I tried going to restaurants to do my homework but then they closed too.” For the time being, she is glad they moved the shelter to this larger location. “It’s way bigger. They’ve got lots of nice showers. It’s cleaner. I’m sad that this is temporary.”

While Alex does her homework, Dennis is on the other side of the partition, propped up on his bed reading a well-worn paperback. “I like this place better,” he says. “In the old shelter, you have bunk beds, and they’re a lot closer together. You’ve got all the snoring. This is much nicer.”

A series of medical misfortunes has made it difficult for Dennis to get ahead. His left forearm is half the diameter of his right arm due to a car crash nine years ago. But it wasn’t the accident that set him back. He used to have an apartment nearby and a steady job driving for DoorDash. Things were going well until he woke up one morning unable to breathe. Diagnosed with heart disease, he spent two months in the hospital followed by a month in rehab. “I lost my apartment and I lost all my money,” he says. “I still owe some money on medical bills.”

Dennis. Despite medical misfortunes that have left him with medical debt, he continues to work as a driver. (Photo: David Kidd)

Dennis is back working for DoorDash, on the road from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. He hopes to be able to rent a room somewhere soon. “Actually, the coronavirus is helping me out because I get to earn money,” he says. “I get to stay in the shelter. So that's saving me money. You go out and there's no traffic on the roads. Everything's delivery so it's working out great for me.”

Miss Williams has returned to the center of the room for another announcement. Do any of you have a fever? Does anybody have a persistent deep cough, or having trouble breathing? No? If any of these things happen to you while you’re here, please let me know. Thank you very much.”

This is Syreeta’s fifth night at the shelter. She had started a new job three months ago, waitressing at a seafood restaurant. Before that, she worked at Burger King. “I've been working for the past three and a half years since I touched foot in Woodbridge,” she says. “I'm one of the people that are directly affected by the coronavirus.”

She had been renting a room nearby and moved into a hotel while waiting for another room to become available. Soon after, the restaurant shut down. “When they decided to close, no more tips. no more money,” she says. “I ran out of money to pay for my hotel. And so that's what landed me here. Whenever I can get back to work, I will slowly pick up the pieces.”

At the moment, Syreeta has nothing but the clothes she is wearing plus a few things crammed into a locker and a suitcase in storage. She also has six children and an ex-husband who looks after the younger ones. “Miss Williams was nice enough to bring me some of her own personal clothes,” she says, “She has some stuff that I could fit.”

In the background, Williams is still talking to the room. “We do not have a porta potty on this premises …” Syreeta, rolling her eyes and theatrically sighing, is increasingly irritated by the announcements, calling them demeaning but necessary. “I can’t take it. It’s belittling,” she says and heads for the door.

On this night, 19 of the 48 available beds were used by women. (Photo: David Kidd)

Looking Out for Tent-Dwellers

Roger Guzman is the outreach coordinator for StreetLight Community Ministries. He is heading to his car to make his rounds this afternoon, checking in on the tent-dwellers scattered around this part of the county. But first he stops at a local McDonald's for some food to bring into the homeless encampments.

Roger is patient with his prospects. It might take months or years to get someone to leave their tent. In the meantime, he is always building relationships with the homeless. “What I tell them is I'm not going to promise you I'm going to get you this,” he says. “But I'm going to try.”

With a bag of burgers and fries in hand, Roger heads down a path behind a mega church, picking his way through the brush. The campsite is easy to spot in the leafless woods. Nine carpet squares delineate a path to the entrance that is flanked by two American flags. A generator is noisily doing its job nearby, but out of sight.

“Hello!” says Roger. “You guys in there?”

A young woman greets him and waves him into the first of two tents. A dog soon appears and knowing that Roger has a pocketful of treats, immediately starts to jump up and down. A young man appears next and immediately folds himself into a low chair. He is wearing a camouflage mask and lets his companion do most of the talking. Roger hands over the food, pets the dog and asks a few questions about how they are getting along. The woman would like to have some batteries for her flashlight. Realizing the Batteries Plus store down the street is closed, he promises to stop at a drugstore as soon as he can.

His next stop takes him to a small wooded area between a highway and the back of a big box store. A man comes over to greet him while several others watch from a distance. A few tents are scattered among the trees, several feet apart. He sets a very large, half-empty bottle of beer on the ground beside him. After a few minutes of rambling conversation, it’s time to say goodbye. The man sticks out his hand and Roger is faced with a dilemma.

Outreach coordinator Roger Guzman approaches the tent of someone he’s been dealing with for some time. (Photo: David Kidd)

Twenty minutes later, Roger spots two police officers talking to a woman in front of the Wash ‘n Dry Laundromat. He makes a U-turn at the light and pulls over, recognizing her as the on-and-off girlfriend of the beer drinker he’d just left. By the time he gets to her side, the officers have departed. Her puffy black parka looks out of place on this warm and sunny afternoon. Her face is bright red and she is crying.

“I don't want him no more. I’m stuck.” she says. “Look at me, I’m a mess.”

“Let’s see what we can do,” says Roger. “Let’s see what I can come up with. I'm not going to promise you anything, but I'll try my hardest, OK?”

She has somehow managed to call a taxi using a phone with a shattered screen so opaque as to be nearly unusable. Deciding she has no other option, she reluctantly returns to the beer drinker.

Where Do I Go?

At precisely 5:45 a.m., the overhead lights begin to flicker on inside the gym-turned-shelter.

“Mr. Davis, it’s time to get up!”

Williams has gone home, and her morning counterpart is rousing the overnight guests. With a few exceptions, they don’t need much encouragement to leave their cots. Some have already left for jobs. “It’s time to get up, gentlemen.”

The room begins to fill with the sounds of yawning and feet hitting the floor, as cots are folded and stored. A parade of homeless people shuffles to and from the bathrooms. Someone turns on the TV.

Outside, in the last few minutes of darkness, a small number of guests get into their cars and head to work. A bus pulls up to the curb, but the half dozen riders look to be asleep. No one gets on or off, and the bus pulls away. At exactly 6:30 a.m., the first of two county buses arrive, ready to deliver guests back to the regular shelter. From there it’s a short walk to a drop-in center operated by the county.

Before the coronavirus, 40 people could comfortably fit inside the center and stay as long as they liked. Under new rules, each person has 20 minutes to shower, check their mail and get something to eat. Now, no more than seven people are allowed inside at a time, plus the reduced staff of three. Instead of staying open for five hours each day during the week, the center now closes its doors by 10:30 a.m.

“It’s changed the way we do business,” says Tony Turnage, a director at the center. “But we also see it's essential that we continue to provide the same level of services as much as we can.”

Turnage is adamant that the homeless have someplace to go during this time of shelter in place. “The homeless have told us that a lot of things have shut down for them,” he says. “This is the one refuge for them to come in, get breakfast, wash their clothes.”

But the reduced hours of operation mean the homeless have to fend for themselves most of the day. “You get 20 minutes in there. So you're in and you're out. And then what?” says Syreeta, the unemployed waitress. “I have no job and it's like, where do I go? There's nowhere to go. I'm out in the elements at eight o'clock in the morning. It's hard.”

The temporary shelter provides a lot more space for guests who are usually sleeping close together in bunk beds. (Photo: David Kidd)

Staying Safe as Best They Can

Whatever hardships the coronavirus has imposed on this particular group of homeless people, to a person they are happy to spend their nights in the converted gymnasium, instead of the bunk beds back at the other shelter. “The atmosphere here is great, says Williams, the former drill sergeant. “It gives us the room that we need and cuts down on friction, confrontation, and those type things because everybody has more space.”

Whether by intention or not, the tent dwellers are practicing their own version of social distancing, scattered as they are throughout the local woods. “We're here. We're staying here,” says the woman in the tent. “The only time I contact people is when I go to the store or I go to panhandle. But I keep my distance.”

To date, there are no reported cases of COVID-19 among the homeless population in the county. But because officials know it is only a matter of time, planning is underway to house and quarantine the homeless who are ill but don’t require hospitalization.

“We have to have a place for persons who are experiencing homelessness, who have underlying health conditions, but who have not had exposure to COVID,” says Courtney Tierney, the county’s director of social services “We are working with our health districts, with our hospitals, with all of our nonprofit partners, to get this up and ready as needed.”

In the meantime, residents of the overnight shelter will continue to practice social distancing as best they can. “I have no problem with staying inside if the government insists on it,” says Alex, the college student, “but where are we supposed to go if we don’t have a house?

Overnight guests catch the 6:30 a.m. bus that takes them to the drop-in center. (Photo: David Kidd)