by Eric Olson-Getty

By now most of us have become accustomed to the recommended practices for preventing the spread of COVID-19: washing hands, wearing masks, and of course “social distancing,” a.k.a. staying at least 6 feet apart from other people. Recommendations on how businesses and organizations can best facilitate social distancing have evolved, becoming stricter over time. At OCP we have stayed ahead of the curve on protocols for our building, but if you’ve driven past 17 E. Johnson Street you may have observed that we have large groups of people congregating outside, often without social distancing. This has been a cause for alarm for some who have gone so far as to call the authorities when they see unhoused people gathering to access services. One mobile ministry that serves our community members was forced to shut down and relocate due to citizen complaints. While in many cases I doubt these calls are made out of genuine concern for the well-being of people without homes, let’s bracket that caveat and explain why these gatherings are both necessary and relatively safe.

The first thing to understand is that people without homes cannot do social distancing like those of us who do. The choice each person faces is whether to sleep in a congregant setting like a shelter, or to sleep outdoors. And even those who choose to go it alone still have to join up with the group to access meals and other services. This is why it’s important to think of the unhoused community like one giant household. We don’t expect families or housemates to socially distance from each other inside the home. Same thing goes for our community members, except there are dozens sharing the same spaces 24-hours a day, 7-days per week.

For that reason our best bet for keeping people safe is to effectively quarantine our community as a group. Each person is getting screened for COVID symptoms once or twice daily between the Open Doors shelter and OCP, and those who present with symptoms are immediately isolated and given medical attention. Those who have tested positive for COVID are kept in isolation by the City of Harrisonburg, and individuals who are at high risk of becoming seriously ill or dying if infected are kept in quarantine at a separate hotel. We have very tight restrictions on who can interact with our community members, and staff and volunteers are required to adhere to strict safety protocols when not at OCP. OCP coordinates all services with Open Doors, the Suitcase Clinic, and Mercy House to ensure we are upholding the same standards while providing effective case management for each individual.

Our safety measures have paid off. Only 6 unhoused individuals have tested positive for COVID-19, and as of the writing of this blog post we have no current cases. Compare this to over 675 total confirmed cases in Harrisonburg. So, while it may look at first glance like things are pretty sloppy in the social distancing department, Harrisonburg’s service agencies have kept things locked down pretty tight. Ultimately we depend on the rest of the residents of Harrisonburg who have homes to be vigilant, follow guidelines, and stay home. That is what will keep the streets safer for those who have nowhere else to be.