Mission takes extra steps to protect homeless from COVID-19

The homeless  – already vulnerable – are among the most susceptible to coronavirus. In response, the Holland Rescue Mission has taken numerous safety precautions to protect the residents staying at the homeless shelter.
“All our residents are at increased risk. They have a myriad of underlying health issues just because of life living on the streets,” says Rachael Neal, the Mission's development director.

Even before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its new recommendations that everyone wears masks when in public, the Holland Rescue Mission was working to collect enough masks for every resident, staff member and volunteer at each of its sites, Neal says.

Essential safety

Many of the Mission’s programs are on hold while the pandemic plays out. Food, however, is essential. Fifteen volunteers help keep the nonprofit's food services operating every day. Many have been redeployed from other areas of the nonprofit.

The relatively new centralized kitchen is really paying off, Food Services Director Frank Wilson says. When they moved to distribute food out of one centralized kitchen a year ago, staff had no idea it would be put to the test like this.

Holland Rescue Mission Food Services Director Frank Wilson (left) and a volunteer display donated utensils and plates to be used in the Mission's food centers.

“We’re cooking the same amount of food, but we’re getting it to different places hot and safe,” he says.

Sanitation and safety are not just the watchwords inside the kitchen, but for those being served in the dining room as well, Wilson says.

“We are actually standing there watching people making sure they are washing their hands,” he says. 

Lines on the floor to mark safe social distances. Meals are no longer served buffet-style. The salad bar is closed. Mealtimes are staggered to maintain social distancing. One resident is served at a time, and those who are not staying at the Mission have to receive take-out meals.

Already-strict cleaning standards are being ramped up, Neal says.

“It has really caused us to rethink a lot of different things, and I’m not sure it’s going to go away,” Wilson says.

His team is taking away from the pandemic “good solid things we can do to prevent our group from getting sick.”


The entire Mission is under lockdown. Residents who once were required to leave the building during the day unless they were there for meals or programming now are required to stay.

“They’re not getting the social aspect, just like all of us,” Wilson says.

Anyone who comes into the building has to undergo a health screening that includes a temperature check.

Related: Being homeless during the COVID-19 crisis

A skeleton crew of staff and volunteers has been keeping core programs running. The Mission has stopped taking on new volunteers while the sometimes-deadly coronavirus remains a threat. All existing volunteers have signed a waiver stating they understand the risks.

“We’re all concerned, but we’re taking all the precautions we can,” says volunteer Gary Edwards, 73. 

He makes soups and salads every morning to serve the men in the downtown shelter.

“It’s a lot more work than it used to be,” he says, “but we’re gaining on it every day.”


The Rescue Mission has consulted with the Ottawa County Health Department and Holland Hospital to keep its procedures in line with recommendations.

“This has been really eye-opening for us,” Neal says.

Thankfully, Neal says, no COVID-19 cases have surfaced.
Tina Paul (left) and Nancy Leach, who work in the Holland Rescue Mission's Gateway Store have been "redeployed" serve food at Family Hope Ministry Center.

The shelter has been working to “deintensify” its population. In other words, to make sure there is enough room for everyone to maintain healthy social distances.

The men’s emergency shelter and program housing in downtown Holland has a capacity of more than 100, but the number of men staying there has been kept to between 50 and 75, Neal says.

So far, the Mission hasn’t had to turn anyone away, she says.

Some families were able to go through “rapid rehousing” with Good Samaritan Ministries to find their own rental housing. Several area churches and hotels are helping to provide temporary housing, food, and child care for Mission residents.

The Mission received a $20,000 emergency grant to help with COVID-19 expenses from an ad hoc coalition formed by the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area, Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, and the Greater Ottawa County United Way.

Related: Emergency grants help nonprofits get more food, services to those in need

Although the Family Hope Center has 100 beds for single women and families, capacity has been limited to half that. Several women and children have temporarily moved into a local hotel.

Whereas a couple of families might have once shared a room, each bedroom is now limited to one family. Mealtimes, which were once social affairs, are now more isolated. Those who wish to take their meals in their rooms are allowed to do so.

“We’ve got to give everybody an extra measure of grace right now,” Neal says.

The future

Restaurants forced to shut down with still-good food sitting in their walk-in coolers, grocery stores such as Gordon Food Services, and community members have been keeping the Mission kitchen stocked for now. 

“We’ve been able to connect with other agencies. We share information and donations and a lot of different ways we haven’t had to do before,” Wilson says. 

Donated food that can’t be used at the Mission is sent on to other area nonprofits, he says. 

“We’re working together to make sure that food doesn’t sit and waste, but gets distributed throughout the Holland area.”

In addition to food contributions to help provide three meals a day for 120-plus people, the Mission is seeking donations of reusable cloth masks, bleach, vitamin C and other items, Neal says.

The larger problem for the Holland Rescue Mission and other area nonprofits serving food needs is yet to come, Neal and Wilson say.

“In the next couple of months we’re going to see a surge in the number of people needing our services,” Neal says.

The Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive that typically collects about five months’ worth of food for area nonprofits has been postponed. A new date has not been set. The Mission and other West Michigan agencies that help those who are food insecure are working on an online alternative, but Neal admits it is an uphill climb.

“It’s coming down the pike,” Neal says, “We’re trying to remain hopeful knowing more is coming.”

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.