Life in quarantine is even more challenging for the city's homeless

Andy Downing
The inside of an emergency shelter at 40 West. The need for an isolated shelter for those experiencing homelessness was prevalent early in the COVID-19 pandemic due to congregant settings at shelters.

Adam Johnson entered into a two-week quarantine on Thursday, Jan. 7, shortly after a man on his floor at a homeless shelter tested positive for COVID-19. 

Following established policy, Johnson, who said he has since tested negative for the virus, settled into a room at a North Side hotel currently serving as theShelter for Isolation and Quarantine (SIQ) site, a facilityestablished by the Community Shelter Board in partnership with the YMCA of Central Ohio to provide assistance to people experiencing homelessness who have tested positive for COVID-19, have exhibited symptoms or have come in contact with someone who has the virus. 

Since moving to the hotel, Johnson has been confined to his room, where he’s filled his hours by watching TV and playing video games on a provided tablet.

“Time moves slow. It feels like I’ve been here a month already but it’s only been a week,” said Johnson, 39, reached at SIQ by phone in mid-January. “I feel safer in here, though, knowing I’m not around anybody [infected with COVID-19].”

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It hasn’t been an easy adjustment, though. In addition to feelings of isolation and general boredom, Johnson has struggled with what he termed the meager food allotment provided by SIQ, describing the dinner portion as “a couple of spoonfuls of the main course and a spoonful or two of the sides.” 

“It was just really hard to get by on,” he said of the rations, which are dropped off once a day to minimize contact between residents and staff, and which consisted of “shelf stable” items that could be prepared and stored in the microwave and mini-fridge standard to each room. Generally, this has meant oatmeal with fresh fruit for breakfast, assuming fresh fruit is available, some type of soup for lunch, and a heat-and-eat dinner. 

“They seemed aware it wasn’t enough food to go around,” Johnson said. “And when I talked to the nurses … they told me they had been working on getting more.”

In a message shared withAlive, one SIQ staffer said there has been a months-long internal push to solicit more donations and improve food offerings, and that the quality and limited portion sizes remained the biggest reason why patients left the facility prior to completing the recommended two-week quarantine.

To try and spur action, Johnson started calling around to local food pantries during his early days at the facility, hoping to facilitate donations for SIQ. Eventually, he was put in touch with a representative from the Columbus chapter ofFood Not Bombs, an independent collective that claims unused foods and redistributes them to people in need before the items can go to waste. In the weeks since, the collective has made at least four donations to SIQ, including a load of pierogis from Pierogi Mountain, which ended up with excess stock after it was forced to close for a few days following an employee’s positive COVID test.

“These are people that are falling between the cracks,” said a spokesperson for Food Not Bombs, who refrained from criticizing the SIQ facility, which they believed was doing its best with the resources given, but struggled with the reality that anyone in a city with as much money as Columbus could be confronted with food shortages while living in government care. “You would think that the people being quarantined, who can’t go and get food anywhere else, that they would be the first ones taken care of.”

Kourtney Clark, SIQ site program director for YMCA of Central Ohio, said the provided daily rations meet federal nutrition standards, but allowed that the facility has had difficulties stocking and maintaining a secondary pantry for residents who require additional sustenance. 

“Sometimes, depending on a person’s appetite, that [one food delivery] may not be enough,” said Clark, who noted the SIQ has partnered with Mid-Ohio Food Bank, which delivers food to be prepared at the YMCA’s Caring Kitchen since there is no food prep area on-site at SIQ. “We’ve tried to keep a small pantry available for the patients that are there, and that part has been challenging. … We’ve facilitated conversations with multiple agencies to try to not only make the menu better, but to try to give the patients more voice. A lot of times, being homeless, the choice is taken away from people. We want to make it where we have options available, so if they don’t like something that’s been prepared, they have a choice of something else.”

Recently, Atticus Garden, who volunteers at SIQ, helped facilitate a connection between the site and the Coalition of Democratic and Progressive Organizations of Central Ohio, which staged a food drive on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and collected enough goods for SIQ to fill a rented U-Haul cargo van to the ceiling with assorted packaged foods and much-needed clothing items. (Those living at SIQ don’t have access to laundry services, so items like socks and underwear tend to be in high demand.)

“Those in the homeless community, some of them still maintain some money, and day-to-day they have an expectation of what they eat, or how much they eat. … And so we do get patients at the facility where it’s a big adjustment. They’re used to moving about freely … where they can go to a restaurant and order whatever they want, which isn’t possible in here,” said Gardner, noting that everyone at SIQ is free to leave at any point, though it’s not medically recommended until 10 to 14 days have passed. “It’s challenging, especially with the state of things now. Social programs are doing their best to survive off of what they can and what they have.”

Clark echoed this point, adding that there was some letdown that settled in after the holidays, when donations leveled off following months when people tend to be more focused on giving. “Around the holidays everyone gears up to feed the homeless, but we’re not really thinking of them the rest of the year, and they need food all year long,” said Clark, who pointed toSIQ’s Amazon wish list as one way people could contribute as the pandemic stretches through the winter and spring. “I wouldn’t say it’s frustration, but it’s trying to find a way to communicate those needs, like, ‘Hey, let’s spread this out some. Let’s donate all year long and not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas.’”

The YMCA staffers who started the first SIQ facility