Harrisonburg and JMU staff team up to turn gymnasium space into homeless shelter

The temporary homeless shelter set up inside of Godwin Hall at JMU.
The temporary homeless shelter set up inside of Godwin Hall at JMU.(WHSV)
Published: Mar. 30, 2020 at 4:52 PM EDT
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While James Madison University (JMU) students are home and attending classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Harrisonburg will use one of the school's gymnasium spaces as a temporary homeless shelter.

"For them to actually step up and do this for us is phenomenal," Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed told WHSV on Monday. "They will have showers. They will have food coming in. They will be well taken care of."

According to a release from the city of Harrisonburg on Monday evening, city officials are working with JMU staff and local nonprofit Open Doors to turn Godwin Hall into a temporary overnight emergency shelter for people who are homeless in our area.

The city says the shelter will operate according to the same guidelines as Open Doors' usual seasonal shelter, which generally runs during winter months,

It will only open in evening and overnight hours as a place for homeless people to stay the night.

The new temporary shelter opens Monday evening, and city and JMU officials will assess how long to keep it operating depending on its use.

Open Doors staff will manage the shelters in cooperation with JMU’s Godwin building staff. Open Doors will also be using an attached kitchen space to prepare meals for those using the shelter.

“We are very thankful for our partners in the community who have come together to support people in need in Harrisonburg during this difficult time for many of us,” Harrisonburg City Manager Eric D. Campbell said. “James Madison University did not hesitate to answer the call of supporting our community, and we are incredibly grateful to have their partnership in this effort. Relationships such as the one between JMU and the City of Harrisonburg are vital in making our community such a supportive place for all.”

Social distancing requirements, per Gov. Northam's public health emergency orders, will be in place at the temporary shelter. Though the ban on gatherings of 10 or more people does not apply to shelters, the city will require a six-foot minimum space between all sleeping arrangements.

“We are pleased to be able to help support some of the most vulnerable members of our community during this challenging time,” said JMU President Jonathan Alger. “Open Doors provides a vital service to people who would otherwise have no place to go, and we’re thankful to be able to partner with the City of Harrisonburg to support that important mission. At JMU we believe in addressing critical societal needs, and we are proud to answer the call to provide safe and stable shelter for those in need.”

The Harrisonburg Department of Public Transportation will handle transportation to the shelter. Anyone in need of it should assemble at the Turner Pavilion, behind Harrisonburg City Hall, by 6:15 p.m. for van transportation.

Open Doors previously said they are temporarily not accepting donated items for the health and safety of guests and staff, but say they have enough items to serve guests for the time-being and will post an announcement if any specific needs arise.

Other options to help the homeless in our area during the ongoing outbreak include:

Salvation Army

The Salvation Army of Harrisonburg says they remain "committed to its mission of serving the homeless, hungry, and those in need."

Leaders are working with public officials in the area to address concerns for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County’s homeless populations, low income individuals and families, as well as volunteers and staff of The Salvation Army.

For the immediate future, they're making the following changes:

• As of this week, they are keeping the food pantry open every business day morning except for Wednesdays, when the front door will be locked and people can knock to enter.

• Anyone needing assistance with utilities will need to make an appointment in advance. Individuals will need to bring all required paperwork in printed form. To schedule an appointment, please call 540-434-4854.

• For the foreseeable future, there will not be any self-serve food donations on the “community table” in the lobby.

• They have suspended receiving in-kind food donations that are at risk of contamination.

• They are following CDC guidelines for the workplace and shelter regarding sanitation and hygiene.

• The shelter is operating as normal while taking precautions and following CDC guidelines.

• They are asking all visitors who have fever, coughing, and other COVID symptoms to please refrain from visiting.

Our Community Place

According to a statement issued on Wednesday, March 18, Our Community Places says they "remain open and functioning full steam."

But they've changed up schedules to meet emergency food and other needs for the homeless.

For now, they are open Monday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., for breakfast and lunch, which are being served in a social distancing format.

On Fridays, they will serve a free community lunch in a “Drive-Through Soup Kitchen.”

During the week, they will remain open only to homeless and low-income people in need, without additional volunteers allowed.

They laid out other changes in the announcement below:

In lieu of Friday Lunch Restaurant, we will provide box lunches for sale with free delivery. Call our kitchen to order by 11:30am. OCP will continue other services to the homeless as well: showers, laundry, mail, internet, bathrooms, and case management. However, only 10 persons are allowed in the building at a time, in a rotating fashion. Hand washing is required upon entering the building and other protocols are being strictly enforced. Night shelter services along with dinner and breakfast continue to be provided by our sister agency Open Doors, with whom OCP cooperates closely. Homeless agencies along with the Suitcase Clinic, United Way, and the Virginia Dept of Health, held an emergency meeting last Monday to coordinate services and plan for how we can better address the needs of homeless persons during the pandemic. We are communicating with the disaster planning committee currently being facilitated by the City. We urge individuals and groups who are interested in volunteering or helping to meet the needs of homeless persons, to be in touch with OCP or another agency to find out what the current needs, limitations, and protocols are. For example, we can assist you in setting up a program to distribute lunch bags on Saturday or Sunday in a way that minimizes virus transmission. OCP continues to accept donations. However, only food, tents and sleeping bags are being accepted at this time. We will meet you outside to accept the donation. Please call ahead if possible. Financial support is also critical during this time to keep our staff on the job, especially as we’ve had to cancel other fundraisers. OCP is seeking to hire a fulltime case manager to assist with the crisis during the coming months. See our website for information on the position, on OCP’s coronavirus protocols, and updates on our program ( Executive director Sam Nickels stated, “We are working hard to keep our staff safe while continuing daily services to some of our most vulnerable community members who have nowhere else to go. And to do it in a way that minimizes chances of the homeless population becoming infected or becoming vectors in the community. We want to express our deepest appreciation to the larger community for their support during this time of crisis.” The mission of OCP is to build a safe, loving community of restoration and hope for all, especially those facing homelessness and other adverse experiences. OCP currently serves over 17,000 hot meals per year at its location at 17 E. Johnson Street. The community center also provides basic services for those living on the streets, fun and educational trauma-informed activities, supportive employment, and case management.
Mercy House

As of last Friday, March 13, Mercy House closed their man office to the public as a social distancing precaution, but continues to provide emergency shelter services to families experiencing homelessness.

After a screening process, they will accept new cases as well.

They'll also still be providing rapid re-housing and homeless prevention services during the closure, but will be doing so through remote intake and indirect case management processes.

If you are homeless or need housing assistance, you can call Centralized Intake at 540-271-1701 for an eligibility screening.