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The Haven adapts to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic

Monday, March 16, 2020, is a day forever etched in the memory of Leslie Rimmer, the Haven’s Director of Organizational Development. “That was the day COVID-19 changed everything,” she notes. Even though Vermont had only two confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, there had been a rapid rise in many large cities across the country. New Hampshire and Vermont had decided to stop in-person schools two days earlier. Many grocery store shelves were empty that weekend. “The Haven decided we had to close our doors. We had to figure out how we were going to continue to do our work.”

There were many, many on-the-fly adaptations. Instead of offering breakfast and lunch in the Caruso Cafe, “we switched to offering a takeout meal,” Leslie recounts. We could no longer safely provide the winter seasonal shelter for ten guests. But thanks to the State of Vermont, emergency motel vouchers were provided to these guests as well as half of the guests in the Byrne Family Shelter and Hixon House Adult Shelter who were particularly vulnerable to the virus due to age or medical conditions. Another 120 individuals and families displaced by the pandemic soon joined the Haven’s guests. Service coordinators responded by making regular visits to the motels to ensure everyone was safe, to connect them with a PCP, and help people enroll in health insurance. Soon, Haven staff began visiting the motels weekly with a mobile Food Shelf in a truck and vans to make sure there was enough to eat.

On campus, service coordinators shifted meetings with clients to telephone. Soon, video conferencing became the norm. The Food Shelf quickly pivoted to curbside ordering. In April, tents were installed in the parking lot for produce and bread. By May, we needed a larger tent to house Food Shelf operations to meet the needs of the larger number of customers. That tent came down in the winter just as a large shed went up. “It was donated—labor and materials—by Turner Construction,” Leslie says. “We used it for free coats, our book exchange, some surplus groceries, and other special items.” An additional bus-stop style structure built by volunteers from Hypertherm provided a shelter out of the elements for people waiting for food or to meet with a service coordinator.

Another huge change was in volunteers. “By late March, we lost most of our volunteers over the age of 65—representing about one-third of all volunteers,” says Volunteer Services Coordinator Kerri Weeks. “Luckily, we were joined by many new volunteers in the late spring and summer. These included folks who had been furloughed while the shutdown was going on, students and teachers on break, and retirees who were not in the high-risk category for COVID.”

Inside the Haven buildings, there were many more changes for safety including protocols to address need for social distance, mask wearing, symptom checks, surface cleaning, and installation of many touchless appliances including automatic doors. Leslie noted, “We were proud that we continued to provide bathrooms and showers for people who had nowhere else to go.” She continued, “We never stopped providing services and we’ve been in constant system improvement mode for the past year,” Leslie concludes. “We listened to all ideas—in fact, good ideas have come from all over. We talk things through and make decisions pretty quickly.” Throughout these months of endless changes, Leslie observes that there has been one constant: financial support. “The assistance from the community has been amazing,” she says. “It would have been easy for people to focus on themselves. But they didn’t. We feel so well supported.”

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