On March 13, 2020, Colorado Springs saw its first COVID-19 death. Suddenly, the pandemic that by that point was ever-present on national news networks had become a local public health crisis.
Now, almost exactly one year later, a ray of hope is shining through the darkness.
This week, Peak Vista Community Health Centers hosted a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Springs Rescue Mission. The health and medical services nonprofit has maintained a consistent full-time presence on SRM’s campus since the pandemic reached Colorado Springs last year.
“Peak Vista works closely with Springs Rescue Mission to serve individuals experiencing homelessness,” said Dr. Joel Tanaka, Peak Vista’s senior vice president of medical services. “We are excited to be able to offer the, Janssen’s (Johnson and Johnson) COVID-19 vaccine, which only requires one shot, to this vulnerable population.”
The event, designed to offer free vaccinations to Colorado Springs’ most vulnerable men and women, coincides with the one-year anniversary of the virus’ introduction to the city. It’s an encouraging ray of hope for a population disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
“We’re grateful that homeless men and women will have access to vaccines on our campus,” said SRM President and CEO Jack Briggs “By working together we’re seeing guests treated with dignity as they find a pathway out of homelessness, poverty, and addiction.”
The vaccine drive is the latest milestone in a year filled with constant support and encouragement from the community Springs Rescue Mission is proud to serve. Despite the loss, grief and economic hardship faced by so many in Colorado Springs and across the globe, generous donors and community partners have sacrificially given their time, their resources and their finances to help our neighbors in need.
“To see so many rally together to care for homeless individuals during this critical time is a testimony to this community,” said Chief Development Officer Travis Williams. “The outpouring from this community to serve their fellow man has been inspiring.”
No one was truly prepared for what would unfold over the past 12 months — least of all men and women experiencing poverty and homelessness in our community. Caring for our neighbors in need became even more essential — and the weight of that responsibility much clearer.
Springs Rescue Mission immediately began implementing a series of protocols to reduce the likelihood of an outbreak. Non-essential staff began working from home, non-essential services were suspended and the organization began working with the City of Colorado Springs and other community partners to create an “isolation shelter” for homeless individuals in need of quarantine.
“Even before COVID began, our teams were working so hard to create a safe and welcoming environment for our guests,” Williams said. “It has been so humbling to see the length they’ll go to help our neighbors in need. I’ve been impressed with their creativity, compassion and willingness to step forward for the most vulnerable.”
The Mission faced obstacles such as supply shortages and a 20-percent increase in the number of homeless men and women seeking services at its campus in downtown Colorado Springs. Not to mention the challenging logistics of social distancing in a homeless shelter.
But with the help of local heroes — frontline staff, local governments and community partners — the challenge was met. So many faithful donors, neighbors, businesses and other community partners have come together in support of Colorado Springs’ most vulnerable men and women.
“We are only able to do what we do because of so many in Colorado Springs who care for the individuals we serve,” Williams said. “So many have risen up to meet the challenge and show that they really support our neighbors in need. The amount of community support has been an overwhelming blessing.”
As soon as Colorado’s state government declared its “stay-at-home” order, restaurants began donating thousands of pounds of food while other businesses and benefactors donated goods like personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and face masks. Throughout the past year, the community has shown up in a major way and has helped keep our homeless neighbors in need clean, safe and healthy.
“When the community comes together and donates thousands of pounds of items, it really communicates to our guests that people care about them — that’s really important,” said Tyler Peoples, SRM’s director of work initiatives. “Because of the hardships and the isolation people are experiencing right now, I think they especially have a heart for the people we serve. We’re grateful, and I think things like this really make our guests feel like they matter.”
Springs Rescue Mission avoided an outbreak for many months, but that changed shortly after Thanksgiving when an outbreak was reported primarily among staff and residents in our New Life Program (men’s residential addiction recovery). Those who tested positive also included individuals seeking shelter at the Mission, who were immediately referred to the isolation shelter for testing and quarantine.
“As the second wave of the pandemic began sweeping the nation, we knew it would be only a matter of time before we began seeing our first positive cases among staff and the individuals we serve on our campus in downtown Colorado Springs,” said Briggs.
Despite the outbreak, morale has remained high among the 600 or so individuals that visit Springs Rescue Mission’s campus each day. For homeless men and women, survival mode is the norm, and viruses are commonplace among a population that disproportionately suffers from underlying conditions like respiratory illness, heart disease and diabetes.
“I do believe with all my heart that it’s going to get better — this too shall pass,” said Laurie, a shelter guest. “It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but we can’t give up hope. … I’m just very grateful and blessed that I have a roof over my head.”
Throughout the past year, individuals participating in the Mission’s Work Engagement program have continued working hard to protect guests from the spread of the virus.
“It’s made us more aware,” said Kim, a Greenway Flats resident and Work Engagement participant. “Myself and my team are working to keep our clients safe as well as our staff. This has brought our team together — working tirelessly to keep everyone safe and sanitized.”
“It’s been a group effort,” added Rob, a shelter guest who also participates in Work Engagement. “I’m really proud of what we’re doing here and how well this shelter has taken care of us.”
Springs Rescue Mission is committed to continuing its “Layers of Safety” protocols we developed early in the pandemic, and to utilize the Isolation Shelter at City Auditorium in downtown Colorado Springs. The Isolation Shelter is used to quarantine and provide medical assistance to homeless individuals who are experiencing symptoms or have tested positive for COVID-19.
Those Layers of Safety protocols were based on Centers for Disease Control recommendations for homeless service providers and include:
• screening all guests for symptoms upon shelter entry;
• providing easy access to hand sanitizer and masks to all guests, volunteers and staff;
• increasing the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting;
• encouraging “social distancing” and other CDC-recommended self-care techniques;
• implementing head-to-toe sleeping strategies in all shelter programs;
• posting signage related to and encouraging best practices in cleanliness and safety;
• requiring all staff, guests and clients to wash and sanitize hands upon entry;
• referring anyone with symptoms to seek appropriate medical attention; and
• requiring volunteers and non-essential staff to remain home/work remotely.
“Thankfully, SRM has been spared any large outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus,” said Senior Director of Health Joel Siebersma. “As we begin to see the effects of vaccination efforts, we look forward to continuing the everyday work of life change and restoration — helping people get back to helping people find housing, health and work.”
Springs Rescue Mission staff and leadership would like to thank the countless local businesses, government agencies, community partners and generous donors for their help during this difficult time. With community support, we’ve been able to continue serving Colorado Springs’ most vulnerable men and women. It’s some of the most meaningful and important work we’ve ever done, and we couldn’t have done it without the thousands of neighbors choosing to Love Bigger in our amazing city. Springs Rescue Mission would also like to sincerely thank all healthcare workers, first responders and anyone else on the frontlines of this pandemic — those brave men and women who’ve sacrificed to keep others safe and healthy, and to save lives.