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City employees form temporary shelter team to meet homeless needs during pandemic

Posted July 1, 2020

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individuals having a meeting
Richard Zavala, left, Fort Worth's park and recreation director, reviews daily tasks with employees who helped with the Overflow Shelter Operations Unit. Also pictured: from left, Amethyst Sloane, Shane Zondor and Kevin Kemp. Library Director Manya Shorr is leading the scaled-down operation through September.

Just hours before the doors of the Fort Worth Convention Center would open one last time so 100 of Fort Worth’s most vulnerable individuals would have a place to sleep for the night, last-minute details were falling into place for moving the temporary overflow shelter to a new location.

Conventions are resuming in July in Fort Worth as Texas reopens for business. The temporary overflow shelter is continuing on a smaller scale at a south side location, at least through Sept. 30. DRC, the local nonprofit that works with housing the homeless, will operate the shelter for the city.

Moving locations, though, was bittersweet for the city’s Overflow Shelter Operations Unit, a group of several city employees – most with no experience working with the homeless – who came together within a matter of days to help during COVID-19.

For them, carrying out the myriad tasks involved in taking care of 1,930 individuals for 93 nights was complex and exhaustive. The logistics of arranging cots and blankets, to food and medical care, and making sure contracts and leases were in place, was impressive.

“It became a life-changing experience,” said Richard Zavala, Fort Worth’s park and recreation director, who oversaw the unit. “We protected the public health of the community. We helped the most vulnerable – people who don’t have a roof over their head.”

One dilemma facing Fort Worth and cities nationwide as the pandemic unfolded focused on helping people experiencing homelessness. Social distancing guidelines to keep people 6 feet apart left the city’s emergency night shelters scrambling for space and time was of the essence.

When other cities saw hundreds of homeless people test COVID-19 positive, Fort Worth had three cases detected through screening at the Convention Center. Another 11 people testing positive at area hospitals were quarantined in trailers set up around the facility. At its peak, the Convention Center housed 421 people a night, but averaged just under 300 a night over the three months.

“We were fortunate that we got ahead of things,” Zavala said.

Getting ahead of a potential spread among the homeless community was the goal, said Lauren King, interim director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition.

When the Continuum of Care, a group of shelter and homeless services providers, housing developers, health care providers, and city and county representatives, met on March 13 to discuss the pandemic, Fort Worth stepped up to do the right thing, King said.

“It could have been an absolute disaster,” King said. “Our city knew how to do the right thing. We have so many partners, in the service system and outside the system, and they all stepped up and said, ‘Yes, we will do this.’”

Within three days of that decision, Zavala and his team began the task of getting the temporary shelter up and running. It opened March 18, with the last night June 18.

But more than getting ahead of the spread of the virus, the shelter was an opportunity for the agencies, and in particular Fort Worth’s HOPE Team, to get help to homeless individuals that they might not otherwise have the chance to.

The HOPE Team is a homeless outreach team of the city’s police and fire departments, and mental health provider MHMR of Tarrant County. It formed less than a year ago. The shelter operation allowed the team to become more visible to the homeless as well as the downtown residential and business community, said Fort Worth Police Lt. Amy Ladd, a HOPE team leader.

“Fort Worth was prepared because we have a homeless outreach team in place,” Ladd said.

Her counterpart, Fort Worth Fire Lt. Sam Greif, said the experience helped the three groups build camaraderie and learn to work better with each other.

As a result, Greif said, “We were able to reach out to more people than we thought we would.”

Because of their work, 47 homeless individuals returned to the care of relatives and 20 were placed in housing programs. Another 45 people were assessed for housing and are awaiting a match, and 23 were approved for apartments through a rapid rehousing program.

MHMR also placed several individuals in programs.

“There was so much happening so fast,” Zavala said. “A lot of times you’re making the best decision you can with the information you have, and it may or may not be the right decision, but you’ve got to make it. If we can’t step up as a community for the most vulnerable, then we’re not a very good community.”

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