Dear Friends of BES,
This March, the COVID-19 pandemic led the board of BES to a very heart-rending decision of closing the shelter two weeks earlier than scheduled. While open, we were serving about 45 guests per night. The decision to close the shelter was made to protect the homeless guests we serve and the volunteers within our community. At the same time, we took steps to lessen the impact on our street neighbors – including offering our guests sleeping bags, blankets, and tents. Bob Rapp, Executive Director, and many others distributed these items and began to offer bagged lunches on the weekends when other food ministries were closed.
Throughout this pandemic, we continue to be in dialogue with the City of Bethlehem, Northampton County, churches, and other agencies that minister to the poor and homeless in Bethlehem. Through those discussions, we are envisioning what the coming shelter season may look like.
BES and Christ Church filed for an amendment to the zoning variance initially granted by the City to operate at the church. To give greater flexibility, we now have been granted the amendment to open as early as November 1 and stay open as late as April 30. This allows us more flexibility to react to forecasted weather conditions and operational viability. We still plan to be opened for a season shorter than that, likely mid-November to mid-April.
We continue to monitor guidelines from the CDC, the local health care community, and other government agencies to anticipate operational guidelines while keeping guests, volunteers, and employees as safe as we are able. The board is developing options to either open partially, if we can do so safely, or not at all this fall if that is in the best interest of our street neighbors. Based on current trends, and the protocols of vaccine development, a full opening is a very remote possibility.
A partial, socially distanced, and safety conscious approach would be to limit the number of guests, volunteers, and employees in the building at any given time. Based on our current configuration, we will be able to shelter a maximum of 24 men and 12 women by use of bottom bunks assigned no closer than 6 feet. We are also studying the use of portable air handling units equipped with HEPA filters and ozone-type generators to reduce the chance for infection.
The activities of our guests will be limited this year. Guests will be registered by shelter staff, assigned bunks, and be told when they may be seated for dinner and other shelter rules. They may not leave the shelter until the next morning once they have entered for the night. Otherwise, they are limited to their bunks and rest rooms.
Use of volunteers during shelter hours will be highly restricted. No overnight volunteers will be used, and perhaps only limited volunteers who meet certain guidelines may be used for meal service and kitchen cleanup. This option is still being discussed.
We will still rely on volunteers to either prepare or provide evening meals and a grab-and-go breakfast in the mornings. Those individuals would leave prior to guests being allowed to enter. Seating in the dining room will be staggered, and no socializing in the hall afterwards will be allowed. We realize that some of these measures may seem rather draconian, but BES is committed to ensuring the safety of everyone.
Should it become necessary to remain closed during some or all next winter, BES is committed to providing as much support to our street neighbors as we can. It should be noted that Street Medicine reported that there has not been a case of COVID-19 in the encampments. Should we be closed, BES can still provide bagged lunches, supplies for staying outdoors, access to services, etc.
What do we need from you? Prayer for all of us that minister to the poor, hungry, and imprisoned. Patience as we refine guidelines for volunteer efforts. Help in preparing meals. We still need you.
Lastly, we need any financial support you may be able to offer in these difficult times. We highly anticipate the need to hire more staff, especially for overnights. We also plan for increased costs for cleaning services to regularly disinfect the building. And there is still the cost to improve air quality in the building. Please visit our website or contact Bob Rapp should you be able to give.
Thank you and blessings,
The Rev. Rodney Conn
Chair, BES Board of Directors