KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Youth experiencing homelessness face additional challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For starters, unlike adults experiencing homelessness, unaccompanied youth cannot be given a hotel room alone when shelters are at capacity.
Even before the pandemic, that posed a problem for Synergy Services, which helps children experiencing homelessness among other community outreach efforts and was nearly at capacity before COVID-19 struck.
Children's Mercy Hospital and Synergy Services have partnered for years, and it's their ways of working that are keeping the shelter's doors open.
"When thinking about one case of COVID coming into the shelter, that could close the shelter,” Dr. Stephani Stancil, an adolescent medicine clinician at the Children's Mercy Synergy Teen Clinic, said.
It's long been a concern for staff at Synergy.
"That's been the biggest fear since March 2020 is that, 'What do we do if we have to shut down our shelter?,'" Jennifer Hurst, director of development for Synergy Services, said. “How are we going to be able to help these people who desperately need our services? We are full all of the time and we turn away hundreds of people every year from all of our shelters."
“This program has allowed Synergy Services to keep their doors open," Stancil said. "Throughout this process, we have been able to keep their COVID-19 testing positivity rates below 1%. That means essentially we've kept COVID out of their shelter."
Hurst called it remarkable given the high positivity rates in the wider Kansas City area.
“We can't shut down," she said. "We have to be there to be able to help these people who are the most vulnerable in our community, and we've been able to do that because of his very successful partnership."
Clay County provided some funding through federal Cares Act money to make the plan a reality. The $300,000 grant is used for universal testing of all new youth coming into shelters, contact tracing and rapid access to PCR testing for staff, residents and anyone else receiving Syngery’s services.
Stancil highlighted the importance of the testing to the people Synergy Services serves.
“That specific type of very sensitive testing Synergy Services’ youth are able to access is incredibly important to identify infections as soon as we can so we can implement appropriate infection control procedures," Stancil said.
It’s all done at an on-site clinic.
“Just to show that community support and that love to our youth and, when they see that, then they have hope, they believe in themselves, they believe in their future and they can really accomplish anything,” Hurst said.