FARGO — For most of Michael Tebidor's life, he didn't have a sink to wash his hands.
Now, he’s living at the New Life Center, a homeless shelter in Fargo where he can practice good hygiene, and although he can't practice social distancing in such a setting, he believes his hobo life taught him skills to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.
Preferring the term “low budget tourist,” Tebidor hitchhiked for decades and for a couple of years he even rode freight trains all over North America, sometimes waking up under six inches of snow.
He’s not scared, or panicking. He remains wary, but optimistic.
“I’m in the high-risk bracket, but I can’t remember the last time I had a cold,” the 63-year-old said in his thick New York accent. “There are people here pushing the panic button to the point of, say I touched this table, and they’ll come over squirting this thing and wiping it down. Be aware of it, but don’t go overboard, or you’ll get gray hair like I have.”
Before COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, was grabbing headlines, area shelters were full. With the pandemic sending the economy into a tailspin, homeless shelters funded by donations aren’t sure how they will survive, especially if widespread layoffs and evictions ensue.
“This is an enemy that is unseen and has brought everything to a screeching halt,” said New Life Center Executive Director Rob Swiers. “This is a world war on an enemy that we cannot see. If one of our guys gets sick, it will go through there like a lit match through dry brush.”
Maintaining social distance in a homeless shelter is impossible, Swiers said. The buildings are small, and those needing help are many. “We cannot practice social distancing in a homeless shelter. That simply does not happen,” Swiers said.
The New Life Center shelter is full with 130 people. Nobody has shown symptoms of coronavirus, which include sore throat, dry coughing and fever, Swiers said.
“We’re first responders, to a certain extent,” Swiers said of his staff. “We have to have that mentality of first responders.”
People on the front lines at homeless shelters take precautions. They wear plastic face shields, masks, and wash their hands, but they’re putting their health on the line for the area’s needy, he said.
“I’m so proud of our team. We have guys working the front desk, and that is the hardest job we have in our organization, and they recognize the importance of what we’re doing here. If they don’t show up for work it all moves toward chaos,” Swiers said.
Maurice “Mo” Murray, 46, was working the front desk when Swiers entered the front desk room that is locked from the inside and separated from new arrivals by thick glass. In a time when anyone could be infected with the coronavirus, Murray chooses to stay.
“Because I am providing a service to the people,” Murray said. “I would hope someone would do the same for me if the situation was reversed. I believe in God, so whatever he has planned, that is the best plan.”
Pre-COVID-19, the New Life Center served about 300 people every day, breakfast, lunch and supper. Clients and guests entered the cafeteria and picked up their food from a buffet line.
Post-COVID-19, the center is now closed to outsiders. To-go meals are available twice a day and are handed out at the entrance. Isolation rooms have been made ready. A worker wipes down all door handles and flat surfaces with disinfectant every hour. All staff are screened, and mandatory temperature readings of guests have been imposed.
Not even the “pop guy” or vending machine company can come in at this time, Swiers said.
Leah Siewert, program coordinator at the Gladys Ray Shelter, said the situation at the city of Fargo's shelter is the same. They’re packed, with no chance at social distancing.
Temperature readings started Thursday, March 19, and will most likely occur multiple times a day, Siewert said. Similar to other shelters, they’re disinfecting countertops and doorknobs constantly, and taking the precautions that they can.
“We have some of the most chronic people living in the shelters, and they just haven’t had the care because they were afraid to go to the doctor,” Siewert said.
The New Life Center and the YWCA are providing meals for people at the Gladys Ray Shelter, Siewert said. Some clients at the shelter would spend their days at the Fargo Public Library, but since its closure, many have been catching up on sleep, she said.
“We are all working together to make sure they are in a safe environment. It’s small buildings, and we’re just coming off of winter, but overall they are really doing good,” Siewert said. “We’re going to keep going whatever it takes, for however long it takes.”
As the coronavirus spreads, nonprofit organizations like the New Life Center are already feeling the hurt. The center depends on donations, a nearby thrift store and the Fargo Marathon to raise funds. With the thrift store now closed, and if donations decrease as Swiers expects, the organization will be down about $150,000 before summer.
In Minnesota, some legislators believe many residents could face housing instability by month's end, and a proposed bill would bar landlords from filing for eviction for 30 days in places where public health emergencies have been declared.
Locally, the sheriffs of Cass and Clay counties have said they won't carry out housing eviction orders during the pandemic.
Some state governors, incIuding those in Indiana and Kansas, have restricted evictions during the coronavirus crisis. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum have not done so.
"We're certainly taking a look at that, and individual apartment owners are going to have to review their own policies," Burgum said Wednesday, March 18, at a news conference. "This is an unprecedented economic challenge for the state, and I hope we look back and see that we handled the virus well."
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