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Omicron tore through an Arlington County homeless shelter. To contain it, they moved everyone into a motel.

By Marissa J. Lang

Staffers at Arlington County’s largest homeless shelter for adults have spent the better part of the past two years trying to keep the coronavirus in check. They tested everyone regularly, moved any person who caught the virus into isolation. They had strict protocols, high vaccination rates among the nearly 100 homeless residents who use the facility and required that face masks be worn indoors.

As cases of the coronavirus’s delta variant spread through the region last year, positive tests would appear in ones and twos. But then came omicron.

Kasia Shaw, a nurse practitioner and the senior director of medical services for PathForward, the nonprofit organization that runs the homeless services center for Arlington County, Va., was conducting routine testing in late December when she noticed something odd: Nearly every fifth test was positive. So, she tested everyone again. The second time, she said, she logged even more.

It was an outbreak.

Nearly two years into a deadly pandemic that has pushed front-line workers to their limits and dramatically altered the way in which providers of homelessness care do their jobs, the staff at PathForward decided to do something extreme: clear the shelter completely during the busiest time of year.

“We’d never had so many positive cases at once — ones, twos, never more than that,” Shaw said. “I just thought to myself, ‘This is not good.’”

To contain the virus, roughly 100 homeless residents were moved from the shelter in South Arlington to a motel about five minutes away. They’ve been there for more than six weeks.

“We knew we needed to literally vacate the homeless services center and let it sit and get cleaned so we weren’t reinfecting anyone or having a situation like you do with the cold where it passes from one person to the next and then bounces back and you get it all over again,” said Betsy Frantz, the president and chief executive of PathForward. “But then the challenge becomes we’re talking about moving everything, all our operations to a motel. We’ve never done anything like that before.”

Since the start of the pandemic, providers of homelessness services have struggled to walk a line between continuing to care for clients with a wide range of needs — physical or mental illness, substance abuse, unemployment and others — and keeping people safe in congregate settings where social distancing is nearly impossible and infectious diseases can spread swiftly.

During the coldest months of the year, many shelters expand to take in those who might typically sleep on the street; at PathForward, very cold weather increases the client population from about 55 to around 100.

While long-term clients sleep two to a room, clients who come in during hypothermia alerts sleep all together in a large converted office space on cots spaced as far apart as capacity allows.

The move to the motel, a Days Inn on Columbia Pike, meant everyone would get a bed, a bathroom and more freedom than typically would be available to individuals at the shelter. But not everyone was excited to go.

Several clients were hesitant, even scared, staff members said.

For many, especially those who struggle with mental illness and related conditions, officials said, routine is essential. Moving away from the homeless services center would be a huge disruption.

“We’re doing something we’ve never done before — never even fathomed before, and we’re asking our clients to do something extremely difficult as well,” said Terrance Toussaint, the senior director of the PathForward homeless services center program. “It’s not like we’re moving shoes; we’re moving human beings with needs and feelings and triggers.”

The relocation also was an adjustment for staffers, who converted motel rooms into operation command centers, packed and handed out bagged meals, conducted daily coronavirus testing and patrolled the outdoor walkways of the motel performing wellness and safety checks in all weather.

On Friday, shelter monitor Jasmine Chapman started her rounds going door-to-door to check on residents. She wore a mask and rubber gloves as she paced the yellow corridors. Chapman, who contracted the coronavirus last year, said she continues to suffer from symptoms of long covid and was nervous about the omicron surge. She said she’s grateful the shelter took the outbreak so seriously.

“Other shelters I’ve worked for would never even think about doing something like this,” Chapman said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Chapman is one of nearly 30 staff members who work staggered shifts at the motel to provide coverage 24 hours a day.

As of Friday, nearly 80 homeless adults were staying in the PathForward rooms.

While operations continued at the motel, the shelter facility was deep-cleaned and disinfected. As of this week, PathForward is ready to move everyone back. Just as they had trouble moving people out, Toussaint said, the staff is concerned they might meet some resistance getting residents back in.

“Now we’re asking people — a lot of whom don’t like change — to do something drastic again, to give up their freedom, their own bathrooms,” Toussaint said. “We’ll see what tomorrow brings.”

Malesha Bruner, 23, who has been homeless since July, dreads trading her motel room for a cot and blanket in the shelter’s hypothermia facility.

Bruner, who moved to the Arlington area to escape an abusive relationship in California, said having the motel room has allowed her to feel safe having twice-weekly visits with her 5-month-old daughter, who has been in the custody of Arlington County Child Protective Services for the past several months.

Bruner is one of the few residents with her own room at the motel. When she moves back to the shelter, she’ll be in the hypothermia area — a shared space with cots lined up for multiple women.

“I was very scared about what it would mean to be in a shelter when I first came to PathForward. It was a big adjustment,” Bruner said. “Here, I can leave my stuff in the room when I go to work. I can come and go. I don’t have to worry about having my daughter here and her being safe or getting sick.”

Bruner recently qualified for a housing voucher and said she’s using it as motivation to find an apartment as soon as possible.

At the PathForward shelter, a low-barrier facility that accepts a wide range of adults with or without identifying materials and other paperwork, residents are expected to follow certain rules or risk being removed.

Bags are searched at the entrance. New clients are tested for the novel coronavirus before they’re admitted. Drugs, weapons and pornographic materials are banned. And there’s a daily curfew — 10 p.m. during the week and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Men and women are housed in separate parts of the facility.

At the motel, staffers said, the rules are theoretically the same but nearly impossible to enforce.

“You just have to change your priorities when you’re dealing with an outbreak,” said Shaw, the nurse practitioner who oversees the shelter’s medical services. “At a garden-style hotel, it’s nearly impossible for staff to keep folks from bringing substances into their rooms, which feeds people’s addictions. But from a covid perspective, having the room option has been really good for controlling the infection rate. That’s the challenge.”

Before the move back to the shelter began, Shaw tested everyone again for the coronavirus just to be sure.

The number of positive cases: zero.