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The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the biggest challenges for our entire world. For people experiencing homelessness in Oakland and Alameda County, it was an especially heavy hit. At EOCP, we maneuvered with the flexibility, creativity, and deep commitment that we've embodied from day one of doing this work.
From the arrival of the coronavirus in Alameda County, our team took action to pivot our daily protocols. We prioritized keeping all the people we serve safe and healthy — those in our shelters, on the streets, and in newly placed housing.
In our shelters, our everyday practice is to meet each individual where they’re at, and support them from there. We learned by constantly adapting our guidelines and ensuring smooth communication with residents. It was difficult but necessary to put in place stricter protocols for health screening, intake, and residents' behavior. We relocated those with chronic illnesses, and created social distancing measures in the dorms and dining rooms. In the most challenging weeks, we required that everyone stay inside to benefit our community’s collective health. Fears and discouragement ran high, and the emotional toll set in. Childcare paused, and families cohabitated 24/7, creating new dynamics to navigate and support. EOCP stayed our course: We listened to every individual to discern the most nurturing routes of action during an uncertain time.
An essential team of kitchen and administrative staff kept all our shelters open and operating. Our case management team took on a rotating schedule to ensure that residents always had a familiar face for hands-on services. As the months progressed, we went through outbreak scares and quarantine responses. Our incredible programming team organized small group activities like movie nights, painting, and chess, and store runs or quick walks. Residents stuck it through, and our staff stayed resilient.
Our team adopted new approaches to reach those we serve and get them housed, working closely with critical community partners. We established a new virtual system for the housing search and placement process, therapy, and support for employment and life skills. There were hurdles, such as limited computer literacy and internet access, and wrangling many Zoom links. Our partnership with The Oakland REACH secured technology support for families. We minimized confusion about accessing benefits for the massive number of people who lost income.
For the first six months of the pandemic, we worked to streamline our internal processes and align with the shifting practices at Oakland Housing Authority (OHA), Alameda Social Services Agency (SSA), and other core partners. After getting in sync, we were together able to support recently housed individuals and families with extended eligibility for rent subsidies, food stamps, and health benefits. Once both EOCP and OHA were working remotely, we were able to conduct inspections of prospective housing units via video calls. With coordinated partnership, we pushed forward housing placements and made sure no one fell through the cracks, even while implementing new systems.
Tightening our relationship with Alameda County Healthcare for the Homeless (ACHCH) has allowed us to serve not just our shelter residents, but also the broader community, as a designated site for vaccination and COVID testing. Our weekly meetings with ACHCH have empowered our on-site team to practice effective contact tracing and temperature and symptom checks.
We are grateful for community solidarity. EOCP partnered with hotels, funding partners, and other allied community organizations to provide shelter. At our hotel partner sites, hotel owners became more aware of residents’ needs and spoke up to Case Managers, who were then better able to anticipate and provide for them. Landlords of suitable permanent housing units set up key lock-boxes and other adjustments to ensure in-person visits could be no-contact.
The pandemic has brought all hands on deck. Across EOCP departments, our team members have grown professionally, collaborated with our partners, and stepped out of their comfort zones. With dedication and compassion, our staff have rolled up their sleeves to keep being a source of motivation and action for those we serve.
As we know, this pandemic is not over. With new variants, our team stays on alert to keep individuals and families at EOCP safe. As California has “opened up”, rents in Oakland have risen. It’s tough to find secure housing in areas that are affordable, familiar, and allow people to live near their jobs or schools.
However, our services are more readily available. With employment counseling, people are attending job fairs, and finding new and stable income. Parents and children are able to work on their bond and new routines, now that schools have reopened. Adults of all ages are participating in the mental health support, substance use care, and life skills workshops — now with tips for staying healthy in the pandemic.
With weekly COVID testing and regular on-site vaccination, our shelters have become safer and less fearful. We are proud that more of our residents know that being vaccinated is important to keep them safe, and that it prevents community spread.
We see our staff persevering, sharing accolades and appreciations with each other, and building new team rituals while staying as committed as ever to our people. As one EOCP Case Manager shared, “We have the right heart, and the right compassion. We don’t give up on getting you somewhere. No matter what, we’re here, and we can give you the tools to sustain yourself.” Our mission, throughout this hard time, has stayed the same.