Los Angeles Mission's Early Focus on Cleanliness Helps Keep Employees and Residents Safe

Herb Smith as told to Lizz Schumer
Photo credit: herb smith

From Good Housekeeping

Herb Smith is the president of the Los Angeles Mission, a Christian organization that provides temporary housing, food, legal services, mental health treatment, and many other services to the homeless community of Los Angeles County. The 50-block radius of Skid Row where the shelter is located is home to almost 5,000 unhoused people, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, with more than 53,000 homeless people in LA County in all. Smith talked to Good Housekeeping about how the Mission is working to maintain its residential services and the cleanliness of its facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We're very fortunate that, so far, we have only had 14 asymptomatic cases among our shelter residents, but none among our staff or recovery programs. We are now in the process of isolating and re-testing everyone at our facility and among the community we serve in Skid Row. So far, none of those tests have come back positive. I attribute that to our vice president of operations who spent a lot of time thinking ahead and being very forward-thinking. That meant we were very aggressive in our cleanliness protocol early, before anyone else was really focusing on that. Of course, our community is experiencing many challenges during this time, and we’re doing everything we can to continue serving them as best we can, while keeping everyone safe and healthy.

We have 456 beds, which translates into that many residents, and we also have about 300 people who come for meals and participate in other programs, so that makes about 800 people we serve per day. And on staff, we have a roster of about 80 people, as well as volunteers who fulfill about 3,000 hours of service during a given month.

I really thought people would all want to hunker down and protect themselves, but they’re at home, they’re bored to death, and they want to help out. Everyone is just so committed to what we do, and that has been the biggest inspiration to me. So to help keep people engaged, a lot of our volunteers are baking cookies at home to put in the food boxes we distribute in the community and to serve at the Mission.

This situation has really brought out the best in so many of us. We’ve had places like Amazon Studios and the Staples Center donate food that they weren’t able to use and some celebrities and restaurants send us food and par-prepared meals. Not because they want the publicity, but because they just want to do something to give back. The prepared meals in particular have really helped us out, because we had a few of our chefs have to take a leave because they’re high-risk, so we’re down some staff at a time when we’re really trying to help everybody.

Photo credit: herb smith

Our food service and food box distribution programs are really in demand right now, especially for our population that don’t have access to cooking facilities. So we've had to do more walk-ups and takeaway meals, especially for our street guests. More people are relying on food donations on a weekly basis that hadn’t before, so we have seen an uptick in need.

One of the biggest challenges for our residents has been the mental health aspect of things. We normally impose a 15-day residency limit, but we put a pause on that so people don’t have to move. So our residents have really been locked down with very limited outside interaction for over six weeks now. It's been difficult because we aren’t allowing guests, so people who would normally be able to have their kids and family members come visit and stay the weekend, that’s all stopped. We would usually have a big Mother’s Day celebration, where we’d invite moms and kids, but that couldn't happen. We’ve been encouraging FaceTime and Zoom and that kind of thing, so that helps a little bit, but it’s not the same.

One positive thing to come out of it is that many of the people in our programs have created a community. They feel like it’s their home and we try to treat them that way. And that pays back sometimes in dividends, in the way that they self-police and volunteer to organize activities and want to help. It's as good for mental health as it is for the betterment of everyone.

Because of the nature of the population we serve, we’ve always been very diligent about cleaning. We’ve always focused on that, especially during flu season, which would normally be our biggest health concern. And that’s one of the big reasons I believe we haven’t seen an outbreak like some other shelters have, because we really ramped up our cleaning schedule and our focus on that several weeks before we were really told to do so. We’ve been cleaning every surface with a medical-grade disinfectant, and using UV light to clean what we can’t wipe down. We already shut down the common area every afternoon for a couple of hours to really deep clean it, so we’ve kept up with that. And even though the state of California doesn’t require gloves in the kitchen, now we’ve got all staff wearing gloves and masks, especially when handling food.

We also instituted hand-washing for everyone who comes in, and when residents come into the dining areas or the common areas, we encourage them to use the hand sanitizer we’ve provided. For our dining and common areas, we’ve marked off every other seat, so people can keep their distance. We used to have people sleeping head-to-head, but now we’ve got them head-to-toe, and we also hung sheets between the bunk beds, which give them a little extra privacy. Going forward, we’re looking at whether we should get rid of bunk beds, to give people even more room.

And we really try to learn from other facilities like ours and even other industries and think outside the box. A dairy farmer turned us on to these antiviral mats that they use at dairy farms, so we’ve ordered those for all of our doors, to try and limit anything getting tracked in. We’ve also distributed food in black garbage bags instead of actual boxes, because they’re easier to carry around town, and that way, the boxes aren’t sitting open to the air where anything can get in. They’re not pretty to look at, but it’s more effective.

The biggest question right now is, how do we start giving people a little more freedom and what does it look like when we do start opening back up? For one, when we do start to bring volunteers back in, we’re going to limit it to those who don’t have any co-occurring conditions and aren’t over 65. We’ll keep going with our cleanliness protocol and limiting the number of people in our common areas as much as we can. We may have to keep social distancing going a little longer than we’d like, but I think we’ve done a great job of flattening the curve so far. And here in California, the suburban nature of our area and the way people are naturally more spread out, definitely helps.

We’ve got a long road ahead of us, but the county has really been doing the yeoman’s work trying to get systems up and running to address the issue. As for us, we’re going to keep doing all we can do to keep our community, our staff, and our volunteers as safe and healthy as possible. That is, and has always been, our highest priority.

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