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COVID spreads in Boise homeless shelters: one Boise Rescue Mission guest and staffer dead

Eight months after Idaho announced it’s first case of COVID-19, the pandemic is hitting Boise’s homeless community harder than ever.

In the past two weeks, the disease made its way into both Interfaith Sanctuary and Boise Rescue Mission’s network of shelters. The shelters, where those experiencing homelessness live in dorms and share common spaces, both have double digits of residents in quarantine in the hopes of containing the spread.

[Homelessness on wheels: Boise Police, social workers launch new initiative for those living in vehicles in downtown Boise]

At Boise Rescue Mission, one guest and a staff member died of COVID-19 since the virus hit Idaho. Boise Rescue Mission CEO Bill Roscoe said the first resident who contracted COVID-19 at the shelter earlier this year died of the disease, although he noted the guest was in poor health at the time of his diagnosis. He was 77 years old.

When asked about the circumstances surrounding the death, here’s what Roscoe told BoiseDev:

“When he was out there (in the community) he got COVID and was diagnosed and we sent him to the hospital and he did pass away. He was a lifetime alcoholic and he just did 15 or 20 years in the state penitentiary. It’s listed as a COVID death, but he was already going to die.”

Roscoe said staff at the nonprofit greatly miss the staff member who died at age 51. He said where the staffer contracted the disease is unknown.

“Who knows where he caught the COVID because the church he goes to had several staff members and parishioners down with COVID before he got it,” Roscoe said. “He lived in the community like the rest of us, so he could have gotten it anywhere, but he worked for us and he got COVID and he died.”

A sign outside the Boise Rescue Mission River of Life men’s shelter in downtown Boise. Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

Dozens in quarantine inside shelters

Boise Rescue Mission’s Nampa Lighthouse Rescue Mission Shelter closed last Friday due to COVID-19-related staffing issues through January. Staff will refer anyone in need of shelter to Boise.

As of Tuesday afternoon there were 26 guests at Boise Rescue Mission in quarantine who are either COVID-19 positive or are awaiting a test result. The Mission set up a separate dormitory with 30 beds. Guests may not leave, but if they do, the agency will not permit them to return.

Roscoe said roughly 50 guests at Boise Rescue Mission have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the year and the majority of them have had “few or no symptoms.”

Interfaith Sanctuary, which has less space available to quarantine sick guests, has 17 individuals in quarantine and has no deaths.

Executive Director Jodi Peterson-Stigers said they are currently using the family side of the shelter as a quarantine space, which has separate bathrooms and an outdoor area from the rest of the building. At the onset of the pandemic, the shelter moved medically high-risk guests and families to hotel rooms funded by the City of Boise to make room for more social distancing inside the shelter.

Peterson-Stigers said she suspects the new warming shelter opened at the beginning of the month contributed to the outbreak. During the summer months, those experiencing homelessness could go to the Boise Public Library to stay cool, but the cold winter months meant the city had to open a larger shelter to keep residents out of the elements.

“We got into a grove in the summer,” Peterson-Stigers said. “It was really strained at the beginning when we were figuring out what we were supposed to do with each other and then we had that back side of the property (for a day shelter) and then winter came and the numbers are bad and a lot of testing is required, it’s cold outside and there’s nowhere for them to go. They’re limited to the warming shelter.”

Due to the high level of need, there are no plans to close the warming shelter. Operators of the day shelter are working with Family Medicine Residency of Idaho and Crush the Curve Idaho to test residents using homeless services to try and contain the outbreak.

A mural on the outside of Interfaith Sanctuary emergency shelter in downtown Boise. Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

Fire at the Cottonwood Suites

Managing the spread has gotten even tricker in the past week following an early Thursday morning fire at the Cottonwood Suites Boise River Downtown. The hotel was being used to house those experiencing homelessness who tested positive for COVID-19 to keep them out of the congregate living environment at the shelters. Without access to the hotel while Interfaith and the City of Boise get the program moved to another location, Peterson-Stigers said it puts even more pressure on the already strapped homeless system.

The fire started in a locked laundry room at the hotel, which means no one was in the room when it started, according to the Idaho Press. Seventy-eight people had to evacuate the building, including 12 people experiencing homelessness positive for COVID-19. They are currently in temporary housing, according to a news release from Interfaith Sanctuary issued earlier this week.

Peterson-Stigers said the challenges of keeping asymptomatic patients in quarantine and navigating a variety of issues that come along with it, including residents who are in danger of going into dangerous withdrawal while waiting to test negative, puts pressure on the homeless community.

“Dispositions are not great,” she said. “Spirits are pretty low sometimes and holiday time is really difficult for this population as well.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev senior reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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