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story.lead_photo.caption Jovonta Batte, left, and David Anderson take a break on the front porch of Wiley House. The shelter is remaining open 24/7 to keep its residents safe from COVID-19, Executive Director Misty Dothage said. Photo by Helen Wilbers / Fulton Sun.

It's hard to follow recommendations to stay home when you're homeless.

As COVID-19 spreads, Fulton's only homeless shelter has moved to 24/7 services to provide a safe place for a particularly vulnerable community.

"We went to 24-hour operations at Wiley House at the end of last week, Friday, to the meet the needs of our guests," Our House Executive Director Misty Dothage said. "Things were starting to shut down. We also wanted to give them a safe place to go during the day."

Our House's Wiley House is typically only open overnight. Haven House, the family shelter, is a full-time shelter but was already at full capacity when COVID-19 reached Missouri.

Challenges

Dothage said Fulton's homeless population often spends the day at the Callaway County Public Library or the John C. Harris Community Center. Both have closed to the public. And living on the streets during a pandemic simply isn't safe.

"Most people don't think about people who've been homeless for a while have sensitive immune systems," Dothage said. "They've been undernourished, they've had a lack of medical care. They're at a higher risk category than an average person. We went into a shelter-in-place model ourselves."

Both shelters are full, but if a spot opens up, Dothage doesn't plan to admit any additional people for fear of bringing in COVID-19.

She emphasized homeless individuals don't pose a great risk to the community — if anything, it's the opposite.

"Some folks are blaming the homeless population for COVID-19 spreading," she said. "That's quite bothersome, since the whole reason COVID is spreading is because of traveling. The traveling that (brought it between countries) was done individuals who have money. Homeless folks do travel but within a small area."

Aside from posing a health risk, the pandemic has made it harder for Our House's clients to plan for the future — whether that's finding tomorrow's lunch or applying for the job that might help them afford rent.

Many are on a fixed income or rely on WIC or SNAP. Homeless individuals and those on the brink of homelessness can't afford to purchase enough food to last a family for two weeks.

"The whole point of being at (Our House) is to progress toward self-sufficiency," Dothage said. "They're trying to move forward in life. Those job searching, trying to establish medical and mental health care — they're being greeted with more shut doors than ever."

How to help

The transition to full-time services hasn't been easy, Dothage said. To reduce the risk of a volunteer bringing in the disease, all Our House staffing needs are being filled by Dothage, the Our House board, a couple of staff members and two regular volunteers who've promised not to volunteer anywhere else.

"I've been pulling overtime," Dothage said.

Our House is scrounging up three meals a day for the 20 Wiley House residents and four Haven House families. Utility usage is up, and they're generating more trash than usual. All of that costs money. Though donors have been generous, purchasing food and other vital supplies is getting difficult.

"Our Haven House babies are needing to get specific formula and diaper needs met," Dothage said. "We had a 'formula crisis' last week where we couldn't find the formula we needed for our babies. My husband had to go all the way to Warrenton to try and find some formula."

Dothage said monetary donations are very much welcome — they can be given at ourhousecallaway.org/monetary.

"Obviously, people aren't wanting to get out of their houses as much, but if they're wanting to become a donor, we can use that money toward needs we've been having," she said.

Our House is also seeking donations of specific items, including and especially:

Cleaning products of all kinds

Dish soap

Laundry detergent

Paper towels

Paper or Styrofoam plates

Infant diapers sizes 3, 5 and 3T

Baby wipes

Socks of all sizes

Canned goods

People planning to make a donation can call Our House at 573-642-6065, send a Facebook message or stop by 829 Jefferson St. in Fulton, drop the items off on the porch and knock on the door. Non-residents aren't currently permitted inside the two shelter buildings, but a staff member will come out to pick up the donation.

Anyone interested in providing pre-made meals should call or send a Facebook message to work out details — as should anyone with a fundraising idea.

"When people think about essential services, they think of health care and grocery stores," Dothage said. "They forget that we nonprofits are essential as well. Homeless people don't instantly get homes whenever a crisis hits."

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