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Salvation Army's Downtown Homeless Shelter Closes After Positive Tests; ARCH Confirms First Case

The Salvation Army's downtown homeless shelter
Julia Reihs

Salvation Army Austin's downtown shelter was closed this weekend after 12 people there tested positive for COVID-19. All 187 people staying at the shelter have been moved to a city-leased hotel.

KUT has also confirmed the first case of COVID-19 at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless next door.

Corey Leith, a spokesperson for Salvation Army Austin, said the shelter had been planning to close to deep-clean the 242-bed facility. Shelter staff have struggled to maintain physical distancing in the dormitories, some of which can hold up to 30 people. On top of that, people staying at the shelter can leave during the day, which could expose them to the coronavirus.

"It's really hard to control social distancing when clients leave the shelter daily," Leith said. "[We're] not sure if this individual caught this outside the shelter or inside. It's really hard to kind of determine that."

Leith said Salvation Army will contract a cleaning company to clean the facility, "so we can control what we can control inside the building." It also plans to reconfigure beds to put more space between them. Salvation Army expects the shelter to be operational sometime in the middle of next week. 

Late last month, a client staying at the shelter tested positive for COVID-19. That person was sharing a room with 19 other people, who were kept in isolation at the shelter before being transferred to a city-leased hotel for observation. 

Also Monday, the head of Front Steps ­– which manages the ARCH – said the shelter had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. 

Greg McCormack said the client was put into isolation at a city-leased hotel last week after developing a cough. The client, who was tested at the ARCH's on-site clinic, was confirmed positive Monday. Seven people who had shared a room with him were tested and are in isolation at a hotel, as well.

Health care workers from CommunityCare and Dell Seton were at the ARCH testing the rest of the shelter's clients.

McCormack said Front Steps is sleeping anywhere from seven to 10 people in its dorms, which typically hold up to 20. Clients are sleeping one person per set of bunks to distance as much as possible. Staff has also been taking clients' temperatures twice daily and monitoring if they develop symptoms.

Advocates and officials worry about COVID-19 spreading among homeless Austinites, who often can't socially distance and may have underlying conditions that could put them at higher risk for illness caused by the disease. 

Officials in Austin voted last week to expand the number of hotels it's leasing to house people who can't safely isolate, including homeless Austinites. The Austin City Council approved terms for three contracts on as many hotels to serve as emergency housing for people who may have contracted the virus, may be symptomatic or may be at higher risk. The hotels could house roughly 500 people.

This story has been updated with a corrected number of positive COVID-19 cases at the Salvation Army and the confirmation of a positive test at the ARCH.

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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