One of Duluth’s most vulnerable populations appears to be weathering the COVID-19 pandemic so far.

CHUM’s homeless shelter and drop-in center, between them, have been housing more than 100 people per night recently, executive director Lee Stuart said. Occupants have been tested for fever for at least the past six nights, and none has been reported to date.

But caring for people who may not be able to shelter in place or practice social distancing currently is the top priority for St. Louis County Public Health, division director Amy Westbrook said Wednesday. That likely will involve placing any homeless individuals who test positive for COVID-19 in quarantine in hotels, she said.

“We sent out a letter requesting assistance with this need to all lodging establishments that are licensed in St. Louis County,” Westbrook said. “And so we've gotten a really, overwhelmingly positive response from many establishments that are interested in helping solve this problem.”

Westbrook said she is hopeful contracts will be signed with specific businesses within days. Although the virus may not yet have touched those in the community who are homeless or living in poverty, it has changed their lives — including how they eat. Just as restaurants have resorted to various forms of curbside service, “soup kitchens” also are serving meals to go. In some cases, they’ve had to cut back the number of meals they serve.

A volunteer at CHUM’s food shelf (hidden) sets a partially filled food box on a table as stockman Shandale Jones brings a filled box to the door where people received the food as CHUM’s director of distributive services Scott VanDaele brings bread for the food boxes. CHUM prepared 80 boxes of food Wednesday.  (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
A volunteer at CHUM’s food shelf (hidden) sets a partially filled food box on a table as stockman Shandale Jones brings a filled box to the door where people received the food as CHUM’s director of distributive services Scott VanDaele brings bread for the food boxes. CHUM prepared 80 boxes of food Wednesday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

“We had to let go of all of our volunteers,” said Susan Jordahl-Bubacz, director of Union Gospel Mission.

One volunteer did remain, but besides that the workforce consists of Jordahl-Bubacz, two kitchen workers, the bookkeeper and a van driver, she said. So the mission, which had been serving three meals daily on weekdays, cut back to a hot meal to go Sunday through Friday evening and soup and a sandwich to go during the noon hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Instead of allowing people to come in any time, the mission is open for a cup of coffee and a doughnut, and the building now is open only to the workers, Jordahl-Bubacz said.

The camaraderie is missed.

“Part of going there wasn’t just getting food,” said Juliana Nyquist, 35. “It was being able to sit down and socialize with the people.”

Nyquist was among about 50 people standing Wednesday morning in the alley outside of the CHUM food shelf on First Avenue West. It was about 10 minutes ahead of the 10 a.m. opening, and some of those waiting for the distribution of boxes of food had been there since 9.

Stuart later said that 77 food boxes were distributed in an hour.

Nyquist was with her friend JoAnn Linky, 46, who recently found a place to live after nine years of homelessness. Nyquist showed off an attractive bandanna she’d been given at CHUM to cover her face. But outside of one man wearing a face mask, protective gear wasn’t in evidence, and there was little spacing between those in the line.

Linky had a cold, she said, but was unconcerned.

“As long as it’s a wet cold, you’re fine,” Linky said. “Dry is bad. Kind of like a dog’s nose.”

Craig Eckhoff transfers food he received at CHUM’s food shelf Wednesday from a box to his daypack. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Craig Eckhoff transfers food he received at CHUM’s food shelf Wednesday from a box to his daypack. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Linky and Nyquist were near the front of the line, but not as close as Craig Eckhoff, 69. He heard the Historic Old Central School bell calling the hour as he arrived, Eckhoff said.

Eckhoff was with a small group of people who live in the same apartment building in the Central Hillside. Shortly after 10, he emerged from the building with a box containing bread, milk, potatoes, canned goods and meat. “Pretty much what you need,” he said. “Probably more than I grew up with.”

He had brought a book bag, and he and the others in the little group were removing food items from the boxes and cooperatively placing them in the bags and cars they’d brought with them.

COVID-19 wasn’t keeping him from going any place he wanted to go, Eckhoff said. “It gives me something to laugh about.”

But there are places that people can’t go inside anymore, such as Union Gospel Mission and the library.

Duluth Harbor Mission, in Lincoln Park, is allowing up to five or six people to come in at a time, said its director, Veronica J. Ciurleo. But to make way for others, they’re not being allowed to stay long. In the past, the storefront mission on Third Street has had as many as 20-25 people inside. Like other facilities, the mission has resorted to serving to-go lunches. It’s open from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

People line up outside CHUM’s food shelf to receive boxes of food Wednesday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
People line up outside CHUM’s food shelf to receive boxes of food Wednesday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The Damiano Center also moved meals outside of its dining facility, serving breakfast and lunch in its parking lot Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and dinner on Friday and Sunday. Its “Kids’ Kitchen” is serving boxed meals from 3-6 p.m. Monday to Thursday at the center’s Second Avenue West entrance.

Jordahl-Bubacz said Union Gospel Mission opted to serve lunches on Tuesdays and Thursdays because those are the days the Damiano Center isn’t open.

Already, she said, she’s seeing people coming to the mission who haven’t visited before.

“We’re seeing so many new faces,” Jordahl-Bubacz said. “We had a woman (come) here who said, ‘This is my first meal in five days.’ She wasn’t homeless, but she’s laid off, living paycheck to paycheck.”

To help

CHUM’s webpage: chumduluth.org

Damiano Center’s webpage: damianocenter.org

Union Gospel Mission’s webpage: duluth-ugm.org

Duluth Harbor Mission webpage: duluthhm.org

Salvation Army in Duluth: centralusa.salvationarmy.org/northern/Duluth

Also, check out the News Tribune’s “How you can help in the Northland.”