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Shelters make most of COVID challenges

By KAREN THIEL 

For the Washington Daily News

The contrasts couldn’t be more stark. Faced with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, one local women’s shelter has dealt with the pressure of full — and sometimes overflowing — occupancy, while the other has had the chance to plan future programming changes in an empty and newly sanitized building.

The difference can be ascribed to one component: danger. Every occupant of Ruth’s House shelter is a victim of domestic abuse. Each woman has gotten used to dealing with the court system, protective orders, child custody issues and the ever-present fear that their abuser might find them, according to Executive Director Valerie Kines. Kines said Ruth’s House occupants are safe because their location is a closely guarded secret, which means the staff is always on duty, always on guard. And the shelter’s management team constantly searches for new and better ways to keep their wards safe from the violence that forced them to flee for their lives.

In contrast, most of the women and children staying at the Open Door Community Center, a women’s and children’s shelter on Cowell Farm Road, were relocated “right before the quarantine,” according to ODCC Board President Brandy Vincent, who said there “wasn’t a one that wasn’t ready to transition and that didn’t find a place to go.”

Vincent said Open Door staffers have gotten calls every day since then, from women who also need a place to stay because of homelessness due to job loss, domestic disagreements and the results of substance abuse.

“We get all ages, all races, all walks of life,” Vincent said. “You walk into this house, and you will find a mixture, because poverty doesn’t discriminate by race or status or religion.”

Kines said that’s one sad reality shared by clients of both shelters.

Vincent said shelter staff and case managers at Open Door have been communicating with community resources ever since they placed their last resident in focused preparation for the facility’s reopening, which occurred last week. She added she is more grateful every day that the shelter has received an “amazing amount of support from area churches, school supply drives and private donors … and they always arrive right on time.”

In contrast, Kines said she is not accepting hard donations yet, or “anything that can be touched and could therefore spread the virus.” She said because the Ruth’s House store is closed, financial donations are very much needed.

“Revenue from the store is our biggest source of funds, which we use as non-restricted income for several shelter needs because most of the grants we receive come with conditions,” Kines said.

She said the store may stay closed for longer than most of its neighbors on West Main Street in Washington because many of their volunteers are elderly and more vulnerable to the virus, and protecting them is an imperative.

Kines said there is one thing she will never complain about if it doesn’t arrive at Ruth’s House: “So far, we haven’t had any clients with obvious COVID-19 symptoms.”

Kines said she is hoping that trend continues because, while shelter staff has not seen a large uptick in those seeking shelter, they are expecting it. She said Ruth’s House has not gotten the usual number of shelter calls and needs since the virus emerged, but their services are still in high demand.

Kines said she looks forward to eventually being able to do outreach as usual.
“There are no fairs or festivals right now, places where we usually set up an information board, talk to kids and offer giveaways,” she said.

However, staff members continued outreach last week at a local Juneteenth march.

Kines said the pandemic has given Ruth’s House staff the opportunity to reassess the workings of the shelter.

“We have re-imagined how to offer our services. These pandemic issues are teaching us how to build on our protocols and policies,” Kines said. “We will still be teaching. We will still be resilient. And we will still be effective. We are still able to rebuild lives. As a result, our clients are safer — COVID or no COVID.”

Those interested in supporting Ruth’s House, can send a check or money order to P.O. Box 2843, Washington, NC 27889.