MIDVALE, Utah (AP) - The day before Thanksgiving, 32-year-old Jessica Green didn’t know where she, her husband and their two little boys would be sleeping that night.
No longer could they afford the two-bed motel room she said they had been paying about $1,100 a month for. It’s where they had been staying since mid-April after they moved out of the Road Home’s Midvale Family Shelter due to an early spring COVID-19 outbreak, the Deseret News reported.
At first, Green said they were given a voucher to stay there for free because both of their boys, 6-year-old Aiden and 1 1/2-year-old Atticus, are asthmatic, with notes from their doctor explaining they’re high risk for negative COVID-19 effects. But after about four weeks in the motel, Green said the voucher expired because Road Home staff said it was safe for her family to come back.
But Green and her husband, Blake Jackson, were wary of bringing their children back into a shelter setting where they wondered when the next COVID-19 outbreak would again jeopardize their safety. They instead decided to “pawn basically every single possession we had,” Green said, donate plasma, and use Jackson’s unemployment checks to stay in the motel.
“With that amount of money, we could have gotten into a place,” Green said, explaining that the money they could have saved for a security deposit and first and last month’s rent for an apartment all went into the hotel. “But because we didn’t trust the (shelter’s) conditions with both of our kids … They’re high risk. They’re both asthmatic. If they got COVID it could be really bad for them. So we ended up basically sacrificing that so they could be safe.”
Green said it essentially forced her and her husband to choose between their family’s health or draining their finances.
“It was a hard choice to make, but at that point we didn’t feel like we had another choice,” she said.
But last week, Green said they ran out of money because her husband’s unemployment benefits ended.
Earlier this year, Jackson had been laid off from his job as a Salt Lake City restaurant manager because of the havoc the pandemic reaped on the industry, and has since struggled to find another job.
“We’ve never been put into this kind of situation before. We’ve both had a job and a home,” Green said, her voice straining as she held back tears. “It makes you feel like a failure of a parent. But it also makes you feel completely helpless.”
Green, resigned to the fact that the Road Home was now their only option, said she called a week before the rent money was to run out - the day before Thanksgiving. But she said she wasn’t given clear answers of whether she’d even be able to stay at the family shelter or if she could be given another motel voucher.
“We just didn’t know,” Green said, describing how shelter staff would give her vague answers, some urging her not to come to the shelter expecting a bed or else they would “turn her away” (Road Home officials dispute whether families are “turned away,” saying instead they’re referred to other shelters like the Lantern House in Ogden or a diversion program).
It was only after she pressed did Green find out the 300-bed family shelter was dealing with another COVID-19 outbreak.
It was big.
Since Nov. 4, at least 100 people in the Midvale Family Shelter tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday, according to the Salt Lake County Health Department.
At least 219 shelter residents and 41 staffers were tested for COVID-19 in the last month. The most recent testing event conducted Monday involved 69 residents and 13 staff members and added five more positive tests (all shelter residents, four of them under the age of 18) to what was 95 positives as of Nov. 25, according to Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp.
So far, at least 64 out of the 100 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are under the age of 18, Rupp said.
All of the 100 who have tested positive, plus those who have been directly exposed, Rupp said, were invited to move to a quarantine and isolation facility. Salt Lake County officials have been using places such as hotels to isolate populations who aren’t able to self-quarantine at home, but have refused to disclose their locations.
The timing of the outbreak and the strain it placed on the Midvale shelter fueled uncertainty for families like Green’s.
Green said her family was eventually allowed in to the shelter, after it reopened again to new families. The day she was let in was Nov. 25.
Since then, Green has stayed in touch with the Deseret News, expressing concerns about the conditions inside the shelter. Those include what she says is lack of social distancing, inadequate cleaning, bedbugs and a lack of transparency around what families get to be placed in motels, with some being placed in motel rooms while others with high-risk conditions are kept in the shelter.
Green took pictures inside the shelter, showing that the bunks directly next to her family’s beds had been filled by a separate family, going against what she said was the shelter’s own 6-feet social distancing rules. This week, Green said she found out from that family’s mother that their kids had tested positive for COVID-19, compounding her concerns that her children have been exposed.
“It’s hard to describe,” Green said. “We’re just scared.”
Michelle Flynn, the Road Home’s executive director, discussed those issues with the Deseret News in an interview Wednesday evening, saying she doesn’t know about or discount Green’s personal experience. But she said the Road Home is doing its best to house and help homeless families, while acknowledging a congregate shelter setting is far from ideal and extra challenging amid COVID-19 times.
“It’s been a moving target over the last six to eight months … and how we’re able to respond in the shelter system,” Flynn said. “It’s really shown and exasperated how challenging it is and how wrong it is, really, for people to be experiencing homelessness to have to stay in a congregate shelter, and how much better it is to stay in your own home.”
Flynn said requirements around which families do or don’t qualify for motel vouchers as it relates to high-risk conditions evolves based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which she said has more information for at-risk adults than for children. She said the Road Home still has funding it needs for motel vouchers, but it has been working to efficiently use all resources, including both shelter capacity and motel vouchers.
“We’re going through all the families that we have currently in the facility, making sure we’re reassigning based on the latest criteria,” Flynn said. “We’re really trying to keep the (number of) families down in the shelter - it’s very tight, very little opportunity for families to social distance, particularly in sleeping quarters, so we are trying to use the resources strategically to utilize the shelter as needed and the motel vouchers as efficiently as possible.”
Flynn said the Midvale Family Shelter will now have COVID-19 testing on site every week into the future, something that wasn’t happening regularly before because the shelter hadn’t yet seen an outbreak of this size.
Green agreed to share her family’s experience because she said she didn’t feel families inside the Midvale shelter have a “voice.” She also wanted to detail the frustrating experience her family has had with the facility, fed up with what she said was lack of transparency and consistency around motel vouchers, inconsistent abidance to COVID-19 rules inside the shelter, and what has felt like a strain on the shelter system amid last month’s mass outbreak.
“I feel like the people in there need a voice from the inside,” she said. “Rather than all of the shelter’s fluff (saying) ‘We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.’ No you’re not. I’m there. I’m experiencing it firsthand, and you guys aren’t doing what you’re saying.”
Green said she’s grateful her family has a roof over their heads, but she’s still frustrated that the Road Home has declined to provide another motel voucher for her family, even though her children have doctors notes explaining their asthma and their risks from COVID-19.
She’s hounded Road Home staff for a motel voucher like the family received earlier this year, she said, but was told they weren’t giving them out. Only after she was able to talk to a shelter supervisor early this week did Green find out that her family didn’t qualify again for a motel voucher. She was told shelter staff was using CDC guidelines to prioritize who qualified for motel vouchers, narrowing that field to those over the age of 60, those with diabetes, and those with existing medical conditions like heart problems.
“So we go down that totem pole,” Green said, frustrated that it took days to understand those requirements.
And yet, later in the week, Green said she found out other families in the Midvale shelter were being moved into hotel rooms, including one that told her they didn’t have any high-risk conditions, and were being moved to allow more “social distancing” space inside the shelter.
“I get that funding can’t support everybody,” Green said. “But for somebody to tell me (my boys) aren’t high risk, and then they’re moving people out for social distancing doesn’t make me feel any better. … Why are people that aren’t high risk being moved and there are people who are that are still here?”
She criticized the Road Home for not being more transparent with families about qualifying for motel vouchers, especially considering her family qualified for one before but now apparently doesn’t.
In a series of prepared statements issued in response to multiple requests for information from the Deseret News last week, the Road Home officials confirmed the Midvale Family Shelter had pushed pause on taking in new families in recent weeks because of the COVID-19 outbreak, but disputed any notion that the shelter was turning families away.
“Our onsite partner, Utah Community Action, is using a robust diversion program to help support families with other safe options for shelter and when that is not an option, we have access to funds for motels for those who cannot be diverted. We have had funding and used motels for a number of years,” Flynn said in a statement.
“Utah Community Action and the Road Home take a problem-solving approach with each family based on their individual needs,” Flynn said. “Families are diverted to a variety of safe locations including other shelters as appropriate or motels if that is an option. We do have funding to utilize motels.”
Green said she’s already been through Utah Community Action’s diversion program. Initially, that program housed them with her brother in his apartment for a few weeks earlier this spring, but Green said his landlord “wanted him to end up paying a ton of extra money” for the four more people staying in his apartment. “We ended up having to leave there so he didn’t have the chance of being evicted as well,” she said.
The statement that there is motel funding was available was news to Green, who said a different story had been coming from shelter staff, before a supervisor finally explained to her this week why her family didn’t currently qualify.
“They’re telling people they don’t have funding, that they don’t have any kind of help,” Green said.
Flynn said the criteria the Road Home uses to determine which families qualify for the motel vouchers “changes regularly from the CDC, and we continue to work closely with the health department on what those criteria are.”
“I’m sure it’s hard for families, I know it’s hard for families and they would prefer to be in a hotel,” Flynn said. “I can assure you that the families that are put in the hotels are the families that have the highest risk, we would not prioritize families with lower risk over a family with a higher risk.”
As of Wednesday night, 170 people in 50 families stayed in the Midvale shelter, while six families stayed in motels - numbers that change regularly, according to Flynn.
Those did not include additional families that were offered shelter in Salt Lake County quarantine and isolation facilities if they had tested positive or been directly exposed to COVID-19. That tally was at about 103 as of Thursday, according to Rupp.
Back in the shelter, Green said she’s also become increasingly frustrated with how some shelter staff members treat families living there.
“The staff, they treat you like you’re a rat. They don’t treat you like you’re a human being. They treat you like you’re lower than they are. I’ve seen how they talk to some people, and it’s appalling,” Green said.
“These people don’t ask to be in this situation. We didn’t,” Green continued. “We were fine. We had a home. We had everything that we needed, and we never thought we’d see ourselves in a homeless shelter. It’s not something somebody wishes upon their family. And to go into that situation already feeling like you failed, already feeling like I’ve failed my kids to having somebody treat us even worse is so hard. Because you’re literally fighting for everything you can to try and put yourself in a better situation.”
Flynn, who again said she didn’t want to discount Green’s experience, encouraged Green to “talk to our supervisors” about her concerns.
“We take these concerns seriously,” Flynn said. “I know our staff is very committed to working within a trauma-informed framework and being empowering and encouraging in all of our conversations with families. That doesn’t mean she didn’t have that experience, but we definitely want to make sure that’s not something she has to experience. We’re a place of refuge and hope, and we want people to feel that way.”
Green also wanted to call attention to conditions inside the shelter.
Even though the shelter has a deep clean schedule, Green said the shelter staff doesn’t clean as well as they should. After one of those “deep cleans,” Green took pictures of the dust and other trash her husband swept out from under the bunks, including a half-eaten apple, a plastic bag, and a used tooth flosser.
“The conditions there,” she said, “like, I don’t believe they sanitize at all.”
Green and Jackson also showed red bite marks on their arms and their boys’ faces, what they suspected were from bedbugs.
“We’ve been bitten all over,” she said, adding that if families raise the issue, shelter staff deny the problem. “If you call them and ask them, they will claim that they don’t, that their mattresses don’t allow it.”
Flynn, when asked about bed bugs, said it’s continued to be a “challenge” in the Midvale facility and other shelters.
“It’s a challenging place, you have a lot of families coming in and out. We’ve been addressing bedbugs throughout shelters for many, many years. We have a great system in place where we focus on prevention,” Flynn said, describing the “bedbug oven” the shelter uses to sanitize bedding and clothing. “But it’s an ongoing work in progress. I don’t think there’s anyone who would say it’s not an issue. It is an issue, and one that is a work in progress and that we want to address.”
For Green’s complaints about cleaning and her continuing questions on why she has continued to be passed over for a motel voucher, Flynn urged her to continue to talk with shelter supervisors and case managers.
“Every day, every week, situations change,” Flynn said. “We’re flexible, and we want to meet the needs and encourage her to keep that conversation going.”
Flynn said the challenges that the Midvale shelter and other facilities have faced amid the pandemic are a “serious issue” that the Road Home takes seriously. But she also said she’s been “inspired” by her staff, which continue to “come to work every day, putting their own health at risk” to help families.
“It’s just beyond anything the community realizes,” she said.
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