ASHTABULA — With the coronavirus now confirmed in all 50 states and rapidly multiplying, local officials are working to protect one of the most vulnerable populations — the homeless.

Many of the homeless are in poor health to begin with, many are elderly and some suffer with mental illness. Adding to their woes is their living conditions. Whether in a tent in the Ashtabula Gulf or living in the woods or a park, it’s not a good situation, said Steve Sargent, director of the Samaritan House, the county’s only homeless shelter.

“We are open 24/7 during this pandemic as of last Tuesday,” he said. “We have had training with the State of Ohio via webinar and we are working untiringly to serve some of the most needy of our population.”

Samaritan House residents are screened at intake to see if they have any symptoms of the COVID-19, such as a dry cough, fever, difficulty breathing and tiredness. If a homeless person shows any of these symptoms, they will be referred to a medical professional.

“We are practicing social distancing and because of that we have had to temporarily reduce our capacity from 14 to 12 to ensure that we can be in compliance with that order,” Sargent said. “We have always cleaned and sanitized the facility daily simply because we serve a lot of people and we had to treat the shelter like we have someone with a virus.”

Volunteers clean and wipe down the facility several times a day and they meet daily with their clients to make sure they comply with this rule, he said.

Ashtabula City Council President John Roskovics said Gov. Mike DeWine’s orders to shutter all bars, restaurants, libraries and other non-essential public gathering areas closes places the homeless go for help or pass the time.

“While they may be able to get some aid, I imagine they are facing more hardships than usual,” he said. “I know agencies that deal with these issues are very concerned and reaching out to assist them.”

Sargent agreed —  “It is a challenging time for the Samaritan House, but I believe that we were made for such a time as this,” he said. 

In January, a team of about 20 volunteers participated in the Point-in-Time Unsheltered Count, a federally mandated program for all counties, nationwide, that receive housing assistance. 

The volunteers concentrated their efforts in Ashtabula and Ashtabula Township where the homeless are the most prevalent, according to Jill Valentic, executive director of Catholic Charities of Ashtabula County.

An estimated 10 to 20 people were found unsheltered. In reality, the total homeless count is much higher as some people are living at Samaritan House, Homesafe or other short-term housing options.

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