'Biggest challenge we've faced in 128-year history': Union Rescue Mission reopens under new restrictions since shelter's COVID-19 outbreak

The homeless community has been heavily impacted by COVID-19. Downtown Los Angeles' Union Rescue Mission suffered an outbreak at the shelter. Now, as they face an increase in demand for housing, they're reopening, but with new guidelines and protocol.
LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- People living on the street without housing, medical care and regular food are already at risk. And the coronavirus emergency increases that risk significantly.

Although the homeless community is still heavily impacted by COVID-19, the Union Rescue Mission says they reopened on Monday and are welcoming more people.

Reverend Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, joined ABC7 to discuss the status of the center, beginning with a reported 100 positive COVID-19 cases and two deaths since the start of the pandemic.

"As of now, we've had no cases for over 14 days. Everyone who's in quarantine or tier-one housing who's able to come back are being sent back to us and we're going to welcome all who left us - back," said Bales.

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Project Roomkey was created to protect the homeless from the coronavirus and has provided housing to over 7,000 people in just five weeks.


The Union Rescue Mission faces new challenges and structural changes as it tries to keep everyone on staff and those they house safe and healthy.

"We have to create six landing spots. One for women. One for men. And one for families, but also there has to be a post-positive landing area and then, a negative, tested negative area and those coming in brand new," said Bales.

New people coming into Union Rescue Mission will have to wait in the negative testing area 14 days until they receive their coronavirus test results.

"We said we were playing chess with the COVID-19 monster as we dealt with this and now, it's going to be playing chess in reverse - welcoming back people back into six different spots," said Bales.

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With the coronavirus outbreak bringing a company's school meal service to a screeching halt, the co-founder turned to helping the homeless community in Orange County.


So, how many people will they be able to take off the streets and back to Union Rescue Mission?

"We will have to lessen our capacity in this new world," said Bales.

The center normally houses about 1,000 homeless people, but now it will be limited to 550-600 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Bales says the center will need to expedite off-site housing to meet the demands to accommodate more people needing shelter.

"It's the greatest challenge we've ever faced in our 128-year history," said Bales.

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Los Angeles will provide COVID-19 testing and additional resources to Skid Row and other encampments to protect the homeless population from the virus.

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