Project Roomkey – Red Cross leads the way to help most vulnerable fight COVID-19

By Debbi Behrman

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Marianna Thomas

In March, Marianna Thomas of the Red Cross Northern California Coastal Region, received a call from Luke Beckman, Division Disaster State Relations Director for California. Luke needed someone with Mass Care expertise to develop hotel shelter training for state and local government partners to better manage isolation and quarantine for people experiencing homelessness. The non-congregate shelter sites, which are part of California’s Project Roomkey, include hotels, motels, and trailers. California was the first in the nation to receive FEMA funding to secure thousands of isolation rooms in hotels for our most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness with the intention to protect them from COVID.

Marianna is the Mass Care Co-lead (along with Laura Hovden) for the Northern California Coastal Region, as well as the lead for the National Mass Care Webinars, and the perfect choice. “My first reaction,” Marianna recounts, “was our expertise is with helping people in disasters, not helping people experiencing homelessness and putting them in hotels.”  American Red Cross is known for congregate sheltering (like in a high school gymnasium-style shelter), not non-congregate (one person per room) sheltering. Then she realized that the Red Cross is an expert in developing and delivering training and knows more about sheltering than just about any other organization. That’s how she came to lead the team who developed the non-congregate shelter training for partners.

To begin designing the training, the team took what they knew about congregate sheltering, and applied the same principles to non-congregate sheltering. “One of our challenges,” explained Marianna, “is that we didn’t have non-congregate sheltering guidance from National yet. It was like flying a plane while building it.”

But what they did have was a solid team of people. “We had a really good cross-section of people, including two Mass Care chiefs (there are only about 20 in the whole country), a nurse who helped interpret what was coming from the CDC, and a skilled course developer and instructor,” Marianna recounts. Another team member was an expert in liaising with the government and brought the partner perspective to the project. The state of California connected them to subject matter experts–people who had been on the front lines moving people experiencing homelessness into hotels,. “Their expertise and support really helped us to develop the training program much faster,” Marianna says.

“Another challenge was that we were all dealing with the pandemic in some way ourselves. We were all deployed virtually, and it was still stressful.” To help the team cope, Marianna began by spending the first few minutes of each meeting with a check-in to see how everyone was doing. “At first no one was participating with the check-ins except me, so I thought about canceling it. Then a few days later I tuned in and heard several team members talking about their personal challenges brought on by COVID. I decided to keep the check-ins agenda item because I wanted people to come to the daily meetings as they were and share it with their colleagues. It’s more real.”

To date, more than 300 state and local government workers in California have received the Red Cross non-congregate shelter training for partners through instructor-led sessions. The team has created a checklist for opening, closing, and managing non-congregate shelters, as well as other handouts and resources. Other states have expressed interest in utilizing the training, and Marianna has heard that FEMA is interested as well.  A huge thank you and kudos to Marianna and the team: Dave Crocker, Chuck Duncan, Lorraine Jacobs, Deb Harper, Neil Katin, Sharie Lewis, and Karl Matzke.

Debbi Behrman is a volunteer writer with the Northern California Coastal Region.