Washington DC homeless shelter serves the poor despite coronavirus fears

hypothermia 1 1 Clients and volunteers at the Fr. McKenna Center in Washington, D.C. | The Father McKenna Center

As the Coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads in the U.S., one Catholic organization is trying to protect a population that is particularly vulnerable to the spread of contagious illnesses-the city's homeless.

"One of the repercussions of being homeless is that those sorts of hygiene habits kind of go by the wayside," said Kim Cox, president of the Father McKenna Center in Washington, D.C. which ministers to homeless men in the area.

She noted that the center, which emphasizes community among the men who visit, also stresses personal hygiene - including good hand-washing practices - as part of a lifestyle as conducive as possible to good health.

"They need to stay healthy," Cox said, emphasizing the need for the homeless to avoid habits like drinking and drug use that could compromise their immune systems. "We can only just remind them of appropriate behavior and encourage them to take it on," she said.

The Father McKenna Center is a day shelter for homeless men just north of the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C.

The center is named for Father Horace B. McKenna, SJ, who served for years in Washington, D.C., and was recognized as the "priest to the poor" in the city. It offers meals, case management, and programs to help those who are homeless begin to take control of their lives.

"Our real devotion is to help these guys get convinced that they deserve a better life, and that there's a way to get to it," Cox told CNA.

Making matters more complex for the center is the threat of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). The global outbreak has resulted in more than 113,000 confirmed cases and more than 4,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the contagious virus has reached the U.S., with 647 confirmed or presumptive positive cases and 25 deaths in 36 jurisdictions-including Washington, D.C. Most of the confirmed cases are in the states of Washington, California, and New York.

The Washington homeless population, already vulnerable to illnesses like the flu, are at risk from the spread of the virus. Lacking shelter and exposed to the elements, many have poor hygiene because of lack of access to soap and facilities like showers.

The Father McKenna center has already taken precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, Cox told CNA, mandating the use of hand sanitizer for staff and homeless clients. Staff have been trained to look for signs of Coronavirus in the homeless patrons, and to send them to a nearby health clinic for testing if they appear to have been infected.

Despite the extra precautions, the men still eventually leave for the streets, running added risks of exposure to the virus. The center tries to equip them as well as possible with knowledge of hygiene and a healthy lifestyle, and to serve the homeless through a God-centered mission.

"One of the things that, I think, sets a faith-based organization apart from a secular organization that serves the same population is that we genuinely believe these guys are redeemable," Cox said.

"That is, we believe that they can change. We believe that they can make decisions to change their lives to be better."

The organization's mission, Cox said, flows from the belief that man is made "in the image and likeness of God."

"I think that's very, very Catholic, that whole sense of redemption and possibility of growing closer to who God made us to be," Cox said. "We recognize that these guys are broken in mind, body, and spirit. And while we do not proselytize, God is very present in our presentation."

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