HARLINGEN — Bells from the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church echoed in the distance as dozens of people waited in line outside the dining hall of Loaves & Fishes around noon Tuesday.
One by one, the individuals waited their turn to claim one of the free meals provided by the homeless shelter. Some sit in the shade of the trees in the parking lot, while others sit on parking curbs, or inside the vehicles they arrived in.
The lunch menu consisted of chili with rice, two saltine crackers and a Capri Sun juice pouch.
On a normal day, the individuals receiving the meals, most of whom are homeless, would be welcomed into the dining hall to sit and eat their meals in the air conditioning of the shelter, but the growing threat of COVID-19 is forcing local officials and organizations to implement safety precautions, including Loaves & Fishes and the Salvation Army.
“As of (March 22), we’ve stopped serving the public in the dining hall,” said Pastor Bill Reagan, executive director for Loaves & Fishes. “For about a week, we were letting people sit one per table, but now we have take-out plates like most other restaurants do. People come to the dining hall door for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we give them plates and most of them eat in the parking lot. Most of them walk to Loaves & Fishes to eat.”
The shelter has also told its residents that they will only be allowed to leave the facility in order to go to work or to a doctor’s appointment, and they are required to come right back. They also have to adhere to social distancing measures.
“If they leave the building for any other reasons, we’re not going to let them back in,” Reagan said. “I don’t want them bringing (COVID-19) into the building. So far we don’t have anybody who shows any signs of illness. That’s been hard on them. They’re kind of in close quarters. It’s difficult enough to be homeless, but then to have those kinds of restrictions put on you, it’s pretty tough.”
The Salvation Army, located at 1600 N. 23rd St. in McAllen, has recently extended its hours of operation, moving to a 24-hour facility.
“We have one of the most vulnerable populations,” said Lt. Adolph Aguirre, commanding officer for the McAllen and Hidalgo County Salvation Army. “Usually we have intake at 5 p.m., and people leave at 8 a.m., but given the shelter in place by (Cameron County), we’ve extended our hours for our shelter.”
Normally, the Salvation Army will house roughly 25 shelter residents per night. As of late, the shelter had seen upwards of 45 residents per night.
Aguirre, who has been with the Salvation Army for 10 years, said that the shelter is disinfected multiple times throughout the day. He said that the shelter also has monitors in place to make sure that shelter guests are practicing social distancing inside the building.
“Unless a shelter resident has a need to for work, or for medical reasons, or for essential reasons, we’re asking them to stay in,” said Aguirre. “We’re just extending programs and services inside the facility.”
At Loaves & Fishes, isolation rooms are set aside in case anyone begins to show symptoms of COVID-19. Staff members are also sanitizing the showers after each use.
While the staff is going the extra mile to ensure the safety of its residents, Reagan said that he is concerned about the health and safety of his staff as well.
“We have several staff members over the age of 60, and I’ve asked them to stay home and work from home because people over 60 are more vulnerable than younger people. That’s what it seems like,” Reagan said. “We have several staff members who are out with the flu. I don’t think, from their descriptions of their symptoms, that it’s COVID-19. It’s the flu or a cold, but I have five people out, out of a staff of about 20. It’s tough getting work done.”
Among the losses for the shelter include one of the two cooks on staff who is out sick. The other cook on staff, Ricardo Gonzalez, has been working from 5:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. to help continue to provide warm meals for those in need.
Gonzalez, who’s been a cook since 1991, said that the shelter provides breakfast at 7 a.m., lunch and 12 p.m., and dinner at 4:30 p.m. He said his staff will prepare 70 to-go boxes for every meal. Normally, individuals can take multiple plates, but recently they’ve only been allowed to take one per meal.
“It can be a little tough at times because you always want to put out something good, regardless if it’s free,” said Gonzalez. “It still has my name behind it. You gotta do what you gotta do. I really do love cooking. Don’t tell the pastor, but I’d do this for free. I love doing it.”
The Salvation Army continues to accept donations to help meet the needs and increased demand from residents. While Loaves & Fishes is no longer accepting volunteers or donations, Reagan said that the shelter still accepts monetary donations.