Rockford Rescue Mission continues to serve homeless despite complications of COVID-19 pandemic

By Lynne Conner For Chronicle Media

Exterior of Rockford Rescue Mission, 715 W. State St in Rockford. (Photo by Lynne Conner / for Chronicle Media)

For many local residents, helping to contain the spread of COVID-19 involves staying at home and taking other precautions when forced to venture out.

It’s much more complicated for the hundreds of men, women and children in Winnebago County who live on the streets.

In addition to providing food, shelter and medical services, Rockford homeless shelters are now having to address and protect their clients from a coronavirus outbreak.

Sherry Pitney, CEO of Rockford Rescue Mission, said her organization was proactive as it developed a new protocol for operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“By the time the stay at home directive initially went into effect on March 21, we already had, on paper, a guide to follow, so we weren’t’t scrambling at that point…we had a plan,” she said.

The main changes to the Mission’s outreach during the coronavirus pandemic were to close the Works! Center and Hope Clinic, to suspend volunteer activities, to modify meal service and to close the Men’s and Women’s Crisis to new clients.

“We are still serving the community meals three times a day; but they’re being handed bagged meals through our meal entrance door.

A guest eats dinner at Rockford Rescue Mission while practicing social distancing. (Rockford Rescue Mission photo)

“The people in our Life Recovery Program and our shelter guests (which total approximately 175) are still eating their meals in what we call our great room.  (But) the tables are spread out over a lot of square feet with blue tape to provide social distancing,” she said.

Pitney added that the food is served and placed on the tables right before guests arrive to eliminate a serving line.

Greg Cooney, director of programs at Rockford Rescue Mission said that there have also been changes to the residential programs since the March 21 stay at home directive.

“We limited the number of individuals coming in to our crisis center to reflect our bed capacity,” he said.  “Prior to the coronavirus, we’ve gone over capacity and have had (sleeping) mats on the floor; but now we’re working closely with the city of Rockford to get the overflow guests placed elsewhere.”

“To practice social distancing, we have guests sleeping head to toe six feet apart in our bunk room,” Cooney said.  “This step was taken as a result of conversations with the health department.  There is social distancing during meals, we have blue tape up and down our hallways, so guests can remain six feet apart going to and coming from meals.”

Cooney added that guests who are currently staying at the Rockford Rescue Mission must remain at the facility unless they are going on essential errands.

“Our guests have to get permission from the staff before they leave and it has to be for one of the essential reasons listed in the stay at home order,” he said. “When they return, we’re tracking where they went, so we’re knowledgeable about any risks that may be incurred.”

Crystal Savage, Rockford Rescue Mission director of development, said that educating mission guests on the reasons behind the COVID-19 protocol also helps ensure compliance.

Meals are placed on tables prior to guests’ arrival at the Rockford Rescue Mission. Guests practice social distancing during meal times.

“There are a lot of different levels of understanding among the population we work with and this is why we have been proactive about educating our guests and residents on the CDC guidelines,” she said. “We have posted signage about how to properly wash your hands and how to cover your cough.  If anyone shows signs of a cough or cold we have face masks for them to wear.

“We have mobile hand-washing stations outside of our men’s and women’s crisis centers and guests must wash their hands upon returning from essential errands. We have hand sanitizer stations throughout the different program areas.  We are doing more cleaning around the building as well.”

The protocol in place at the Mission to protect against coronavirus seems to be working.  As of April 1, there have been no cases of COVID-19 among staff or residential guests.  Pitney said that a twice daily temperature check for both staff and guests at the Mission adds another measure of safety for everyone in the building.  A nurse is also on staff Monday through Friday between 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. to handle any acute health concerns.

While the Mission continues to meet the physical needs of the city’s homeless, Cooney said that stay at home directive has hampered access to occupational opportunities and mental health care.

“The mental health services that we work with have made themselves available to do conference calls with our guests.  The amount of job searching our guests can do has been definitely more limited due to some businesses being closed right now; so there haven’t been as many occupational opportunities out there.”

Pitney said that the stay at home directive may be a blessing in disguise for members of Rockford Rescue Mission’s Life Recovery Programs.

“This is a nine to 12 month program for men and women who are looking for recovery from drugs, alcohol or destructive life behaviors,” Pitney said. “During that nine to 12-month time, they are only engaged in that program.  They’re not working; they’re not job searching, they’re not looking for social services; their goal is recovery.”

Cooney added, “We’ve started doing some Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous recovery meetings through Zoom so the members of the Life Recovery Program can participate in these programs without leaving the building.”

Pitney credits the full time staff at Rockford Rescue Mission for taking up an increased workload since the Mission suspended volunteer efforts on March 23.  On any given day, volunteers make up about one third of the workforce at the facility.

“Five incredible staff members are making it work.  Additionally, we have employees from our café and thrift store which, are currently closed, who have come over to work in the men’s and women’s crisis centers.  They are helping out in the absence of our wonderful volunteers,” she said.

The Rockford Rescue Mission is taking only emergency donations at this time.  A list of needed items can be found at the Mission’s website,   Financial donations can be made through the website as well.

Pitney feels as though the efforts and the programs of the Rockford Rescue Mission are not enough to help the marginalized of the community.  “About 50 percent of our clients suffer from mental health issues, so I think it’s going to become increasingly more difficult for that population to tolerate this COVID-19 crisis.  But, Rockford Rescue Mission will continue to be here in any way we can to continue serving the most vulnerable, those in the most critical life situations.”