Here’s a question: How soon can you turn a gravel, dirt lot into a trauma-informed homeless shelter built to last with wrap-around services?

That’s what former Anaheim, California, Mayor Tom Tait asked in September 2018.

Just 79 days later, The Salvation Army cut the ribbon on the Anaheim Emergency Shelter—now a temporary home to 224 individuals.

While there, residents have a place to stay, meals and job and housing services.

And now, Benjamin Anozie said The Salvation Army has adapted life at the shelter to increase the safety of residents during the pandemic.

As the site supervisor, Benjamin said the crisis has forced a deeper reflection among his team and for himself about why they do the work they do—despite the risks.

He recently appeared on the Do Gooders Podcast to share how he’s helping in the midst of COVID-19 and what he is seeing on the frontlines of service.

Christin Thieme: Can you tell us a little bit about your connection to The Salvation Army and the work that you’re doing now?

I have currently been with The Salvation Army for almost four years. I started off as the Hospitality House shelter manager and then moved on to a role at the new Anaheim Emergency Shelter as a site supervisor. Currently, I’ve been there for one year and two months. That is where I am currently with The Salvation Army.

When you say you’re a site supervisor, can you explain a little bit about what that means, what that looks like?

A site supervisor oversees all of the operation of the shelter. At our shelter we house 224 residents. In the course of the day, we’re managing the meals and making sure that they’re being checked on. We’re doing wellness checks every single day. We’re making sure that they have everything from linen, bedding, making sure that they’re able to use the facility and access help.

We also have case managers on site and a program supervisor who manages them and makes sure that they get their needs met like if they need housing vouchers, if they need to be able to get off property and to see a therapist or psychologist. We try at our location to really offer wraparound services. In addition, we also coordinate having outside organizations come on property and offer all sorts of care to our residents.

We have partnerships with an eyeglass company, several medical vans that come out and service our residents, and dental services. Quite a lot is going on at the shelter on any given day.

It sounds like it. How have things changed now in the midst of everything happening with COVID-19?

As it has changed our nation, it has also changed the way we operate our shelter. There are tons of things that have changed. To really boil it down, it’s us taking an even more intentional gaze at how we manage residents and really the care and responsibility to be that go-between between them and health care services and really taking a focus on making sure that they’re doing well physically.

Some of the things that we do on a day to day basis are that we go out and do wellness checks. Also, we partnered with Line Security who makes sure our facility is safe, and they’d do temperature checks when our residents come on-site. At this point, we don’t really have many volunteers coming on-site which is a little bit of a setback for us. At the same time, it gives us the opportunity to really ensure that our residents are safe and not having many new people introduced on property allows us to really focus on the care of our residents.

One of the other things that has changed is just this gripping fear that we’re finding in our nation right now. People have so little information about COVID, so it’s been a really great opportunity to educate as well. On a daily basis, we are constantly giving our staff new information that they can freely share with residents, easing their concerns. A lot of our ambassadors have taken the role of being almost counselors for them at some degree. We’re managing those fears and those worries. I’m helping them to understand some of the simple things that they can do to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Those are some of the things that have changed.

What are some of the most pressing needs that you’re seeing from people right now?

Some of the pressing needs are really on the physical level, obviously, and having all the tools to be able to do so. The thermometers, masks, adequate antibacterial soap, Purell, all that is on the physical level. On a deeper level with people, they need to feel secure, and they want to see that actions are being taken to protect them and they have adequate resources available to them. Some of the things that we’re noticing is that there’s a great need for them to feel like there are services still available. Being homeless already puts you at a place where you feel like there are not enough services available for you because you currently don’t have coverage or care or anything prearranged through an employer or with the spouse.

A lot of them want to just make sure that they’re taken care of and a big pressing need is just getting them information. I think a lot of them, and I think society in general, we don’t have enough information and they want someone to just be able to talk through items with them. So, we have a newsletter that goes out to our residents that follows some of the new developments on-site. That really helps to feed the more pressing need of managing them and the mental health aspect of just being in a pandemic.

In general, what does a day in the life at this shelter look like?

Well, a day in the life of the shelter with residents coming in and out, right now we’re really boiled down to them just doing essential outings. So, we have them grab a prescription and go to get essential food if they need it. Even though we do provide meals on-site, some of them have dietary restrictions that require them to eat a particular type of thing. We want them going out to do pressing business, something that is going to keep them going. For some of them, they’re applying for jobs and so part of that, if they go off property, they come back into property and when they get to our front gate, they go through our security check. Security check consists of them being temperature checked at the gate in order to make sure that their temperatures are in great space. They’re also questioned and asked if they’re sick or if they’re experiencing any kind of symptoms that would line up with COVID like a cough or shortness of breath or a fever. 

Once we ascertain that they’re doing okay and they’re in a good space, then we bring them on campus. When they’re on campus from morning till night, they typically are woken up with a call for breakfast in our dining hall where we practice social distancing.

Our dining hall can seat 100 people, but for the sake of really keeping them separated, we’ve minimized it down to 40. We have the area spaced out so that when they come in, they actually have a pre-marked spot to be in. Then, we just monitor that through the day. So that’s breakfast. After breakfast, we have shuttles that go on and off property. Right now we have shuttles that take them to essential businesses and make sure that they’re going off-site, getting there and coming back as quickly. At that time, they have access to shuttles that will take them on and off property. Because of us being on lockdown, we’ve really cut back on allowing residents to go off property on foot or on their bikes and have given them the opportunity to have a ride that’s going to get them there back quickly. If they have vehicles, we just instruct them not to linger and to come right back to the shelter.

At lunchtime we practice the same social distancing. Then, we have programs that we do on-site so our case managers put together things from bingo to watching a movie to doing a talk about just stress levels. We have a whole array of different programs, and we limit the attendance to those programs.

Even in those programs when we hold them, we also ask them to sit in certain designated areas to keep them safe. After that, we have our dinner. Dinner is served at 4:30. After that, we may have one or two more programs. They also can access their mail and locker they have on-site. Then, we have our night call. We have curfew at 8 and then we have the lights out at 10. That’s typically the run of the day.

Definitely. So as an emergency shelter, how long is the average stay?

Right now, we don’t have a set time to stay at our shelter. Our shelter was created because there was a big response in the city of Anaheim to help temporarily house a lot of the homeless individuals in the city. Our shelter is actually a partnership between the city of Anaheim and Salvation Army. It’s uniquely different in the sense that there’s really no strong stipulations to leave the shelter. We encourage them while they’re at the shelter to take advantage of services. We do check-ins with them to see where they’re at, to see what goals they have and to try and meet those goals. But, in no way is there a pressure for them to feel like they’re going to lose their bed or their housing because they are not meeting a certain timeline. They are being assessed by our case managers that are constantly checking in with them.

But we never tell them, “Hey, you have a finite time to get out of here if you don’t do X, Y, Z.” It creates a really great atmosphere in our shelter where residents feel like they’re being supported. I may be a little partial by saying this, but I think that we have one of the best homeless shelters, but again, I work at the shelter. It really creates an awesome environment. That’s what is uniquely different about our shelter and why there’s no timeframe because this is really to meet a need.

Anaheim has a goal of trying to house as many individuals temporarily as they can by a finite period. They’ve been working really, really hard and partnering with a lot of organizations and are truly trying to make this happen. Even in response to this, our shelter has actually grown. We just agreed to grow our shelter another 101 beds taking it up to 325. This is an agreement that The Salvation Army has gone into and we’re currently right now under construction, growing our facility and pushing it out to be able to accommodate these new residents.

That’s amazing. So a pandemic obviously has created stress for everyone. How do you personally handle the emotional stress load that’s come with COVID-19 and especially in your role dealing with so many people who also are feeling stress?

It has caused us, and me personally, to lean on my staff in the sense of helping us to understand the passion and the reason why they came to do the role. There’s no amount of money that you can pay someone to tell them, “Hey, you’re risking your life every day going out, you’re working.” It opens up an opportunity to discuss with them their passions and why they came to work. It causes me to ask myself those questions as well, “Why did I come to work for The Salvation Army to do this type of work?” It causes me to have more conversations with the Lord and my relationship with the Lord and ask, “Why am I doing this?”

I’ve always come up with the same answer that I really want to see lives transformed, and so I want to keep that at the forefront of my mind. That really helps to ground me and helps me understand the work that I’m doing is important and essential. Not only because we’re caring for people’s physical bodies, but we’re also caring for their souls as well. For me, there’s more passion there than just working a job and coming in and punching a clock. It’s really about transforming lives and ultimately caring for people’s soul and caring for them holistically.

I love that. The news is full of a lot of not great stories right now. So as a last thing here, can you share a story from inside the Anaheim Emergency Shelter? Something of kindness or selflessness that you’ve witnessed?

Yeah, I have a few but one that really touched me up a whole lot and this is this really recent one. We had a resident that came into the shelter when we first opened back in February 2019. At the time when he came into the shelter, he was really at a low point in his life. An addiction really gripped him greatly. No matter how many conversations we had, no matter how much encouragement, he could not stay sober. It was like that wasn’t even an option for him. We really pressed in and tried our best to work with him but what would end up happening was that he ended up abandoning his bed at our shelter. We didn’t see him for months and we were very concerned about him.

We tried to reach out to him to no avail. Then, we finally found out that the referral organization that we work with had found him and he wanted to return back to our shelter. When he returned back to our shelter, he was in a completely different place. He explained to me that when he came to us, he was at such a low point and the love that he received when he came to our shelter really helped him to open up and get through this very rough point. It was the love that he experienced that drove him to go into a deep thought about his life and what he would like it to look like. When he went and abandoned his bed, he actually went into a detox, a very intense detox that allowed him to really engage in sobriety.

When he returned, he was sober. He was full of testimonies telling us about how he’s really seen God turn his life around. Not only did he keep that to himself, but he shared that with people in the shelter. He has successfully helped us to encourage three other residents to move into a place of sobriety. He is a street performer and plays multiple instruments and volunteers his time on-site to play instruments. Whenever we have a need for a musical show, he is there doing that. He said he owes his sobriety and this new way of life to God and to The Salvation Army for caring for him when he was at his lowest. 

I love that. Good for him and thanks to you guys for having that connection with him. It’s amazing.

I just want to throw in a couple of things that I did miss, a little bit about our partnership. Some of the things that we’re doing to help with COVID are that we are also partnering with City Net. City Net has basically rented us out a hotel where we’re able to send residents that are at high risk and an exposure to COVID-19 would be devastating for them.

We’ve partnered with them to identify some of our residents who could use the service off-site in addition to getting 28 RVs from the city of Anaheim for those individuals that could not be quarantined at the hotels to actually be quarantined in these luxury RVs that are parked on our property as well. So that’s something that was shining and I apologize that I didn’t mention those. Those are some of the things that we are doing to combat COVID-19 and to offer some option to really get people placed into quarantine because they are in a shared living environment.


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