The Nome Recreation Center opened its doors on Monday to the unsheltered population in Nome. KNOM reports that both the Norton Sound Health Corporation’s Day Shelter and the Nome Emergency Shelter Team, or NEST, have moved their operations to the gymnasium of the rec center for the foreseeable future.
The rec center has been closed to the public since March 14th, as a precautionary measure to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19.
So what is usually a large room filled with youths playing basketball or roller-skating, is now filled with tables where Day Shelter guests sit and entertain themselves by playing cards or doing crafts. At night, the tables in the rec center gym are replaced by mattresses.
The move to the gymnasium allows them to take more precautions against the COVID-19 threat, as Keith Morrison, a recovery coach at the Day Shelter, explains.
“The primary reason why we came here is so that individuals could be six-feet apart both during the day at separate ends of the table and doing their best to spread out.”
Public health and City of Nome officials recommended the move as the larger space at the rec center allows more distance between guests, which can delay the potential spread of the novel coronavirus.
For unknown reasons, conditions at the NEST have been getting more crowded. Rhonda Schneider Executive Director of the Nome Community Center, the organization who operates the NEST, told KNOM via email that there have been nights recently where guests were only able to sleep two-feet apart. Schneider says that normally the number of visitors begins to drop by this time of year, but so far this winter, that hasn’t been the case. NEST’s seasonal timeline is almost up and the shelter is scheduled to close for the season on May 1st.
Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman says another reason for the move is that the unsheltered population is already vulnerable.
“Some of these folks are already sick. We have a person who is homeless who suffers from cancer. Others have immune system problems. So, some of these folks already have challenges right now.”
While representatives from the Day Shelter and NEST are concerned that the rec center facility is far from Front Street, Steckman explains that it’s still the most practical space.
“We chose the Recreation Center which has bathroom facilities and shower facilities for when they shower twice a week.”
He says the National Guard Armory was a consideration, but that space is to be kept available for military use.
City staff will not be running the temporary shelter out of the gymnasium. All operations will be continued by NEST and Day Shelter staff. The City Manager also stressed that the shelter guests do not have access to any of the recreational facilities like the weight room, bowling alley, or basketball hoops. Nome Police’s Community Service Officer will continue to bring guests to the new shelter location at the rec center.
Despite the change of venue, the COVID-19 threat has not changed much in daily intake operations for shelter guests. As of this report, Day Shelter Recovery Coach Keith Morrison says that they are not doing additional health screenings for guests, like a temperature check, but…
“There’s signage all over the facility reminding people what they need to do to protect themselves and each other.”
Rhonda Schneider says that guests will be asked screening questions but did not specify if that included a temperature check or additional health questions. She mentioned that their staff is cleaning frequently and wiping down the mats every night.
In addition, Morrison says they’re trying to figure out how to provide the care that they can while keeping social distance precautions in mind.
“Talking circles are not necessarily as effective when people are forced to be six feet apart from each other. We don’t know that as a fact, we just haven’t tried it.”
According to Morrison they have seen fewer visitors since they moved to the rec center on Monday. He says that could be due to the location change or simply the fact that the weather is getting warmer.
The rec center’s hours of operations have changed so that there is no gap in service between Day Shelter staff and the NEST, allowing guests to have access to an open shelter 24/7.
Image at top: Mattresses are spread six feet apart in the Nome Recreation Center as a social distancing precaution. Photo from Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM (2020)