CAMDEN, NJ — Joseph’s House was able to boast a capacity of roughly 90 after it expanded its shelter last fall. Having to cut down on that to closer to 50 to guarantee guests’ cots are six feet apart during the COVID-19 outbreak wasn’t an easy decision. 

“Even during non-pandemic times it's tough when having to turn people away,” Shawn Sheekey, the executive director of Joseph's House, told TAPinto Camden. “But it was necessary to cut down to keep everyone safe.”

This week, although a place to stay overnight on site isn’t possible for the protection of the current guests and staff, Joseph’s House has begun providing anyone in need access to essential hygienic services.

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“Pastor [Amir] Khan is providing his motor home weekly for anyone to take a shower and wash their hands. We want people to know they can still come to us,” Sheekey said. 

While not all day services are up and running, the non-profit is still offering laundry, access to a computer lab, and food to go. Counseling services related to medical, mental health, substance abuse treatment, job and housing searches are preferably handled over-the-phone or by video conference at the moment.

For any passerby, who is unable to be helped onsite, Joseph’s House is also connecting visitors with other area resources to ensure no one is turned away.

Dealing with a new reality

It’s been a tightrope to walk for homeless shelters in the area concerned over providing services to those with no other recourse while simultaneously protecting their own staff.

Sheekey said the shelter began instilling measures early on, which he said was key to continuing services.

“The last thing we want to do is close,” he said, noting that its meant becoming rigorous for those that do stay overnight. 

“We check people on our roster when they come in to see how they’re doing. We check your temperature when you arrive, ask if you have chest pains or a cough. We do the best assessment we can,” Sheekey added.

Last week, when the nonprofit's board met the crux of the discussion was the addition of hygienic services for visitors. This week, that conversation will shift to thinking long term about COVID-19’s impacts. 

“We want to prepare for the worst-case scenario, let’s say someone tested positive,” Sheekey said. “We’re in contact with the county too, so we handle the situation properly. Whether we’re making sure to switch staff around, to self-quarantine when we need to and hopefully hire more too. We are in need of more staff.”

A group of about 26 is currently handling daily operations at Joseph’s House — helping guests while simultaneously protecting their own health.

And while testing every visitor on-site isn't happening at the moment, doing so and more thoroughly preventing anyone that is sick from spreading it to others is being worked toward as well. 

Information sessions on best in-house practices are common. Cleaning and sanitizing surfaces consistently is the new norm. And the stock of supplies can be sporadic.

“Right now we need hand soap, bottled water, food we can distribute like sandwiches [that people use gloves and disinfectant surfaces to make] and power bars...the other day we received ten cases of Lysol wipes, but that too. Supplies like that run quickly.”

In a blog update Monday, the shelter added the following to its list: casseroles, disinfectant spray, hand sanitizer, individually-packaged snacks with cheese and crackers, trail mix, coffee, coffee creamer (powdered) and sugar.

Monetary donations also help the shelter go on food runs to continue providing meals. 

“We still have people in need that have nothing to do with the coronavirus.” Sheekey said. 

One individual that came to mind was a woman in her 80s, who’s son refused to take her off the streets because of his dependence on access to drugs in the city, Sheekey explained. 

“That’s just one story,” he continued, “we want to keep helping those individuals as well.”

Joseph's House accepts donations from Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. For inquiries, email Kevin Moran at km@jhoc.org

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