Homeless shelters balance COVID concerns amid frigid temperatures

With cold weather fast-approaching, the need to seek shelter and safety becomes even greater, as do the challenges faced by those working to keep everyone off the streets this season.

During a typical winter, shelters throughout the city take in countless individuals on any given night. This season, those organizations are working to find a balance between accomodating everyone while still following COVID-19 guidelines. 

Patrick Vanderburgh, Milwaukee Rescue Mission

"We’re anxious to make sure we have everybody in out of the cold," said Patrick Vanderburgh, president of Milwaukee Rescue Mission.

As coronavirus cases go up, and temperatures drop, the anticipation of those frigid nights is keeping those who serve Milwaukee-area homeless shelters on their toes. 

Milwaukee Rescue Mission

"We have staff on the lookout at all the doors, so people that come -- even in the dead of night, we’re able to get them out of the cold," said Vanderburgh.

Vanderburgh said in addition to temperature checks, mask-wearing and increased cleaning, they've been forced to spread guests out, leading to reduced capacity. 

"For instance, in our men’s shelter, 250-bed capacity, we’re at half, so 125 beds," said Vanderburgh.

Milwaukee Women's Center

But just as they’ve adapted throughout the pandemic, come winter, Vanderburgh said they’ll do the same. 

"That’s going to be a challenge, but we’re identifying places in the building where we can do some overflow," said Vanderburgh.
"One thing we will definitely not do is turn anyone away in the cold weather.”

Similarly, Penelope Dixon with Milwaukee Women’s Center has transformed one of their rooms into an isolation space, used if a guest gets sick.

Penelope Dixon, Milwaukee Women's Center

"We’ve had to make so many adjustments," she said. "What is now our quarantine room, we would use as a warming room so that we could have some bit of overflow. We’re not doing that this year."

Still, Dixon said guests have been understanding, and the community support has been great.

"It's helping to keep everyone safe," said Dixon. "Definitely makes the challenge rewarding."

On this Giving Tuesday, both organizations shared some of their greatest needs with FOX6 News. The Milwaukee Women's Center is currently in need of bedding, blankets, pajamas and socks. Milwaukee Rescue Mission is seeking items that will be gifted to their shelter guests come Christmas. 

During Milwaukee’s winter months, the Milwaukee Continuum of Care will also work to provide shelter for individuals in need. Individuals in need of immediate housing services should contact Coordinated Entry by calling 2-1-1 to be assessed and prioritized for referrals for prevention, housing, shelter or non-congregate settings as appropriate.