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With fewer shelter beds during pandemic, Fort Worth Convention Center opens to homeless

March 19,2020

See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Emerson Clarridge here.

As homeless shelters began to heed advisories from federal officials on the distance that people should keep from one another, the city on Wednesday opened the Fort Worth Convention Center as an overflow facility.

The downtown saucer-shaped arena will house 355 people each night for the duration of concerns about social distance to tame the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The need for a supplemental shelter appeared when the capacities of other facilities in the city, including the Union Gospel Mission and the Presbyterian Night Shelter, decreased as their administrators decided to adopt Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on social distancing, said Park and Recreation Department Director Richard Zavala.

Their beds were too close; six-feet cot spacing is now in place at the convention center and at other shelters.

It is the first time that the Houston Street building is being used as a shelter. It had been prepared for that use after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 but was not activated.

Cots were stretched Wednesday across the convention center’s coliseum floor. Two hundred men were assigned there. Seventy women were to sleep in an adjacent room, a staging area. Other smaller rooms were designated for people who are members of families.

People will begin to check in about 4 p.m., a process including a health screening outside conducted by John Peter Smith Health Network employees.

“A medical team will take their temperature, ask them base questions, and they’ll be aligned either to what’s considered well - they have no symptoms, no temperatures - they’ll go into the main population areas,” said Zavala, who is heading the effort.

The risk of people with symptoms will be evaluated. Some may go to a hospital.

Breakfast and dinner will be available, and officials are exploring providing board games and other forms of entertainment.

Everyone must head out for the day at 7 a.m.

“They have to turn in their blanket,” Zavala said.

Cleaning will get underway before people return in the late afternoon. Entry will be allowed until 9 p.m.

Fort Worth Police Department officers and private security guards will maintain order at the convention center, Zavala said.

The convention center was selected as an overflow shelter in part because of its proximity to the Lancaster Street corridor of traditional shelters. And, Zavala said, events at the center had been canceled.

On any given day there are about 2,000 homeless people in Tarrant and Parker counties, said Tammy McGhee, the executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, which has been working with the city on its convention center plan.

David Yancy, 61, was planning to sleep at the convention center Wednesday night and for as long the public health crisis keeps him away from the Union Gospel Mission, where he has stayed for about four months.

“I like it,” he said. “I like it better than where I was staying.”

The large space will mean that it is not as loud as he is used to, Yancy said.

Cherryll Wallace, pastor of the Church on the Slab, where many in her congregation are homeless, said she was not aware of the city’s plans for the overflow shelter, but questioned whether it is a good idea to crowd people together.

“I don’t think that putting the homeless in a group setting where more people could be jeopardized just because they are seen as less valuable is a good idea,” she said.

Lower capacity shelters were considered to house individuals with symptoms, Zavala said.

“However under the advice of the medical professionals the decision was made to house all in one location to consolidate assessment and services functions,” he wrote in an email.

Location Mentioned: Fort Worth Convention Center