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Pandemic Forces Kearney Center To Relocate Residents

Tom Flanigan

Outbreaks of the coronavirus have forced some of the nation's homeless shelters to close. But Tallahassee's Kearney Center was likely the first in the country to move all its residents before infection occured.

Kearney Center Communications Director Audra Peoples said the planning began months ago.

"Late January, early February, FSU's [Florida State University] School of Interior Design worked with us to create a social distancing plan within the center," she said. "Using that plan, we were quick to understand that we couldn't meet the social distancing guidelines."

Mindy Solisch, the Center's director of medical services, said the goal was to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak in the facility.

"That decision was based on what we heard was occuring in other parts of the country and the world. So we knew that having individuals live close to each other and not able to maintain that 6-foot distance in a congregate setting was putting people at risk, both staff and clients."

Thus began the relocation of the Kearney Center's nearly 400 resident clients. 

"So beginning March 26th, we moved 100 people out of the Kearney Center to apartments and local hotels," said Peoples. "Since that time we have moved individuals out and on Wednesday of last week we moved the final folks out of the Kearney Center and into non-congregate shelters. So that's two hotels in the area and apartments as well."

Solisch said the idea was to continue providing those previously homeless clients safe and comfortable accomodations.

"Housing is health care," she said. "So if you have a clean and safe home for people then they're not being exposed to harsh weather, or infections or injuries or violence. And we're also giving people a safe place to sleep and store their medications, which is important in maintaining their good personal hygiene and recuperating if they get sick."

Spread out as its clients are now, the Center continues to provide them with a full complement of services besides simple housing. The Kearney Center has partners in the Salvation Army, Elder Care Services and Second Harvest of the Big Bend.

"The Salvation Army is helping deliver meals this week," explained Peoples."Elder Care Services has provided meal delivery services. Of course, Second Harvest supplies a lot of the food that we make at the center to send out to our clients."

Solisch continued, saying "the Bond Community Health Center has really been a great partner with us. They are visiting our clients at their new homes in their mobile unit, or connecting to our clients by phone, connecting our clients to a nurse practitioner or a doctor."

More challenges may lie ahead.

"We fully anticipate more and more individuals in our community will have increased needs and we are willing and able to meet those needs," said Peoples. "Right now we are asking people who are newly experiencing homelessness if they are not clients of ours to call 211 Big Bend. From there we'll connect them with case managers who can provide housing, alternatives and options to them as needed and evaluate those needs."

But even as things stand now, even with the extra help, she admits the Kearney Center's resources are being stretched.

"Our additional expenses - just for the month of April - will be about $200,000 over our normal operating costs. So we really need the community support, businesses and private citizens and people who care about other neighbors in our community. This is really the time for them to help us and show our support."

Among the most immediate needs: cloth face masks for clients. 

There's a list of other pressing needs on the Kearney Center's web site:


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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories. here.