Lewis and Clark County is erecting temporary shelter on the county fairgrounds to house homeless people who have contracted COVID-19.
Lewis and Clark Public Health officials have cautioned the county that, due to tight quarters within homeless shelters, any positive case within such a facility could spread rapidly through its population, necessitating the additional shelter. The county plans to use the tents as a place to isolate members of the community that have nowhere to isolate. Officials intend for the temporary shelter to be fully operational by mid-August and have not had to isolate any homeless people to date.
Lewis and Clark County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Reese Martin said in an interview Friday that the endeavor has been in the works for more than a month. The county considered housing infected homeless people in hotel rooms, but negotiations with local hoteliers were less than fruitful.
The tents will house any homeless male who contracts the virus. COVID positive homeless women will be housed in the Journey Home, a shuttered eight-bedroom mental health crisis stabilization facility near downtown Helena. If that facility is overrun, some of the women will be moved to the tents.
Those quarantined at the site will need to be there for 10 days and maintain a normal temperature for 24 hours prior to being released.
While Martin said the county has authorized him to make certain purchases to benefit the project, he plans on "keeping it fiscally responsible."
The county spent $7,500 on two 16- by 48-foot, military-style tents that were pitched on the lawn in front of the fairgrounds' exhibit hall Friday afternoon with the help of some members of Montana National Guard and a local Boy Scout troop. The tents are expected to be able to house as many as 40 people in total.
The county will seek reimbursement for the expenses with federal dollars through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed by Congress in March.
American Red Cross has already donated some cots, and the Elk Horn Community Organizations Active in Disaster, or COAD, a group of area nonprofit organizations that coordinate disaster relief efforts, will provide the food.
County staff is also grappling with the need for staffing the site for health and safety purposes. Lewis and Clark County Chief Administrative Officer Roger Baltz said in an interview Friday that the county will lean on the COAD to round up volunteers who will be trained to monitor the site and those housed there.
The county may also need to pay to staff the facility, Baltz said.
"That may be what we have to do," he said. "We've got to be as flexible as we can be so we're ready to move in any direction."
The tents are made out of a dark green vinyl that could pose a problem as the valley sweats out the remainder of summer. Martin said the tents can be retrofitted with heating and cooling systems, but the county is still working on a plan for keeping individuals quarantined to the tents comfortable.
According to Baltz, that is a top concern with the endeavor at the moment.
"We're going to be very sensitive to that," he said. "The tents may not be a good solution when it's hot."
He said the tents could be moved into the entryway of the exhibit hall, which is separated from the main building by a brick wall, if the weather is unfit for temporary shelter. However, the county is hoping it does not need to make that move as it is still utilizing the space. The exhibit hall has been used most recently for socially distanced jury selections.
Baltz said he does not expect additional expenditures aside from the tents themselves and possibly staff.
The burden, financial or otherwise, of sheltering homeless individuals and families during the health pandemic has largely fallen on the shoulders of the COAD. Following the virus' initial surge in March, YMCA of Helena, along with other member organizations, foot the bill to house homeless families at its Camp Child property west of Helena.
Baltz applauded the COAD's herculean efforts in the past five months.