Six Feet Apart and as Close as Ever
Beatriz Fria, a case manager at Covenant House Texas (CHT) doesn’t like to tell the youth in her care about “social distancing.” She prefers to talk about “physical distancing” to underscore the coronavirus-driven need to keep at least six feet apart from one another to avoid infection by the deadly contagion.
“I don’t want our young people to think they can’t socialize,” she says. They can, she adds, at a safe distance, in reduced numbers, and wearing protective face masks.
It may seem like a small, linguistic matter, but for young people who in their experience of homelessness have been denied the warmth of family, it means a lot to know that at Covenant House they are part of a loving, supportive community. The nuanced language is important.
It’s just one way of navigating the urgent need to protect youth from COVID-19 infection while also promoting among them healthy relationships, social connection, healing, and a path to independence.
When the novel coronavirus was first detected in the U.S. in January—which seems eons ago—CHT immediately held a strategy meeting to discuss safety measures. By early February, senior staff had outlined an emergency infectious disease plan to keep youth and staff safe for as long as possible.
“The first thing we did,” recalls Development Director Felicia Broussard, “was to limit visitations. We cut anything that might over-expose our kids to the virus. And way back in January, we tried to order masks and gloves. We have a full-time medical clinic, so we really needed them. (We still haven’t received some of those orders.)”
With the support of a local organization, CHT installed a handwashing station outside the shelter, so youth and staff could wash their hands before coming indoors.
“We tried not to alarm our youth, so they could operate as normally as possible. That worked until Houston’s stay-at-home order brought more obvious changes,” Felicia says. “Most of our young people lost their jobs at restaurants and movie theaters. Our numbers of unemployed youth are quadrupling.”
As the public health crisis deepened, CHT’s regular food deliveries were cut off in mid-March. “Now we have to go out and buy everything, and the cost is going up,” Felicia says. “We tried to stock up on food supplies and wound up breaking our freezer! There’s a ton of extra expenses we’re facing because of COVID-19 and our efforts to prepare for it.”
In order to be ready for active cases of infection, CHT made the painful decision to close the Youth Engagement Center for drop-in services and convert it into a youth patient center, adding beds and cots and spacing them six feet apart. “We closed an entire building so it could be used for this purpose,” Felicia says.
For case managers like Beatriz Fria, the COVID-19 crisis morphed into an all-hands-on-deck emergency approach to care, where case managers are visible and available to youth every single day. “We now provide extra support for the floor staff, but especially for the youth,” Beatriz says.
With so many young people indoors instead of outside at work or school, case managers looked for new activities to keep the young people engaged and focused, she adds. There are icebreakers, movie day, game night, a book club, fitness hours, painting, music, and more.
“The best thing is that it was the young people who came up with these activities,” Beatriz says. “We went around and asked them what they wanted, and they came up with the ideas. They’re limited in terms of going out, but we were able to give them this freedom to create something new. The activities keep them busy and socializing.”
And moving forward. “At some point, this pandemic will end,” Beatriz says. “So, we haven’t stopped helping youth be successful. Each individual has their own plan for advancing their future. We help them the best we can, given the limitations at this time.”
She says the young residents use the computer room to look and apply for jobs online and to keep up their high school or college studies. Psychological counseling that was always available to youth in person, is now available through telepsychiatry and telepsychology sessions. “We’re concerned for their mental health and well-being during this crisis,” Beatriz says.
“Because we’re young, when we hear the words ‘pandemic’ or ‘health crisis,’ we go into panic,” says 19-year-old CHT resident, Robert. “The staff help limit our panic, and we’re grateful that we’re safe and away from the corona.”
Robert arrived at Covenant House just as CHT had begun planning for the pandemic in January. “I was attracted to the love, the hope. There was something bright about them,” he says. “I checked out the website and saw all the opportunities and possibilities. I called, and they said I could come that day.”
Now Robert is safe, protected, and working on his career goal to become a motivational speaker in order to help others, he says. He already has two semesters of college and is currently studying online with a mentor in his field.
Right now, Robert says the music room at CHT is his favorite place to be. “It used to be open just one day a week; now it’s open all the time. Music keeps me calm and helps me think about the better things in life,” he says.
And he and all the young people at Covenant House Texas are dealing seriously with the demands for safety the coronavirus pandemic has imposed.
“The staff have helped us to know that better times are on the way. We’re worried not just about ourselves but about our friends and the staff, so we keep our rooms clean and wash our hands. If the COVID-19 affects the staff, it will affect all of us too—and we need this place,” Robert says.
And physical distancing? “We may not like it, but we understand that six feet of distance is needed,” he says. “It’s been an eye-opener. Togetherness can continue even with six feet of distance between us.”