By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown & Uptown News
Charles West said he had no fear — or at least very little fear — when he entered the room of a woman who tested positive for coronavirus. In fact, of the entire custodial staff at Father Joe’s Villages, he volunteered to clean the area vacated by the 65-year-old woman living at the transitional housing complex in the East Village.
He credits his military experience and long career in custodial work — along with Father Joe’s Villages staff member training — with preparing him to clean a place contaminated with the deadly virus. .
“After we got trained with PPE (personal protective equipment) and I knew what chemicals we were using, I had nothing to worry about,” West said.
Although the organization uses all non-toxic cleaning supplies, West said the chemical they use to disinfect “kills everything.”
West has worked at the Joan Kroc Center in East Village for the past two years after decades of custodial jobs. He said he intentionally came to the homelessness service provider to find a new challenge and purpose in his work.
Maintenance technician lead Joseph “Joe” Ryan said he has worked for Father Joe’s for 15 years because he knows he is helping people.
“We may not be physically helping them, but we are helping them in a physical way because if we don’t maintain the buildings and put up barriers and stuff like that to protect them, who else is going to?” Ryan said.
In some ways, Father Joe’s Villages was already more prepared than others for the pandemic, according to employees. The staff is used to dealing with biohazards daily from people coming in off the streets. Custodians already wore masks and gloves to clean, so the only difference was wearing PPE constantly instead of only in certain situations. Lead staff also coordinated with Washington-based shelters to see what they needed to do to protect people long before the city issued a shelter-in-place order.
The organizations also weathered the Hepatitis A outbreak that ended in 2018. The city powerwashed the sidewalks daily during the outbreak and installed hand-washing stations. Ryan said not as much was done within the facility during the Hepatitis A outbreak as they have had to do during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” West said.
In response to the pandemic, his cleaning protocols have been updated. The perimeter of the campus is cleaned twice per day and the inside is cleaned four times per day. An intense tracking system is in place to make sure no cleaning item is missed. It also shows where each person is at any given times so spread of the virus could be traced if need be.
The maintenance staff is also working to make the facility safer. Plexiglass shields have been added between clients and employees as well as in dining areas. Separators have also been added to dorm areas, and a new ventilation system is being installed.
“What has changed is I’ve got to find ways to protect people from catching a virus,” Ryan said.
Staff have also moved up the schedule for repainting. Although it was already being disinfected, new paint is being applied inside so the facility looks and smells clean. Ryan said this is to ensure clients feel comfortable and safe at the shelter instead of risking infection on the street.
Along with warehouse staff, retail workers from shuttered thrift stores in the county have been repurposed on the maintenance and custodial staff. With their help, the facility has been able to keep up the new cleaning schedule. As those thrift stores gradually reopen, a contracted company is also available to fill gaps should they arise.
The campus is serving less clients than before with many people moved to the convention center. Instead of hosting 350 people, it now hosts 175 people over the age of 65 or who have pre-existing conditions.
So far, the facility has only had one case of COVID-19, which occurred in April. It has not spread within the campus at all.
“We haven’t seen it go crazy. I think that’s due to our diligence and what we’ve done to help people and make sure that facilities are clean and nice looking,” Ryan said. “I think it’s paying off.”
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.