BEMIDJI -- The world seems to have slowed down around Bemidji with Gov. Tim Walz's "stay at home" order in place to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

However, for those in abusive relationships or difficult living conditions, home may not be the safest place to wait out the pandemic.

"Not being able to go out in the community and access assistance programs makes it difficult to take the steps necessary to change a person's current circumstances," said Andrea Kingbird, executive director at the Northwoods Battered Women's Shelter. "Being able to talk on the phone in an abusive home is likely not an option, especially if everyone is encouraged to stay home, because that could mean being restricted to home with an abusive partner."

"Not being able to interact with others also just increases the amount of isolation that is already present in abusive relationships," she said.

Considered an essential service in Walz's order, though, Northwoods, Bemidji's domestic violence shelter and advocacy program, is still operating in an effort to continue helping those through this situation.

"As a crisis shelter, we cannot simply shut our doors," Kingbird said. "Rather, we have been in communication with Violence Free Minnesota and the State Coalition to End Relationship Abuse, which has organized regular calls with other domestic violence shelters in Minnesota. We have been sharing information between programs to help us all prepare and respond."

As part of the operational changes to slow COVID-19, Kingbird said Northwoods has spread out its staff over various shifts so there aren't more than two direct service people working at a time.

"We have implemented a comprehensive sanitizing regimen, and are following CDC and MDH recommendations," Kingbird said. "Our team understands the fluidity of the circumstances and we are all committed to doing our part to make our services available to those we serve while working hard to maintain quality of services."

With the governor's order in place for at least two weeks, and the situation constantly developing, Kingbird said Northwoods is accepting donated activity items, such as books, movies, games and other things for people to do indoors. She also mentioned that the shelter is accepting over-the-counter medications, as well as personal hygiene products, diapers and wipes.

"All of our committed staff continue to show up every day in order to serve victims/survivors and to help offer them safety and options," Kingbird said.

Youth still have a place to go

Bemidji's youth shelter, operated by Evergreen Youth and Family Services, is also staying open, with added precautions. Its shelter program, located at 622 Mississippi Ave. NW, is not taking clients with COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever, shortness of breath and a cough.

"Our shelter operations are changing, sometimes hourly," said Gary Russell, Evergreen Shelter program director. "There's so much information and changes that we've had to have a lot of strategic meetings."

Those changes have included limiting the shelter to those with symptoms and increasing the regularity of cleaning the facility.

"We're screening the kids that are referrals and we're asking if youths have been in contact with anyone who's been isolated for those symptoms," Russell said. "If there was a youth here who became symptomatic, we'd quarantine them to the best of our ability. We're also encouraging kids to keep more distance and sanitizing the house daily. They're also younger, so hopefully they'd also experience the milder symptoms."

Along with the shelter, Evergreen is also continuing services at its secondary location at 610 Patriot Drive NW. The drop-in center there, which offers services to young people ages 14-24, is open for clients with appointments and homeless youth.

The center is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Wednesday. The center is screening individuals as they arrive and are providing resources including cleaning and hygiene supplies, as well as food packs. Evergreen is also still providing family counseling services via phone and video visits.

County sustaining services

Becky Secore, Beltrami County Health and Human Services director, said the department is having as many employees work from home as possible, while still maintaining its operations.

"The building is closed, but we're still doing services that are court ordered," Secore said. "Supervised visits will go on as required by the courts, so we will have some staff working in house and doing the best to provide the space and social distancing that we can."

Considered essential workers, employees in the child protection assessment and investigations department of Beltrami County Health and Human Services continue their work on Tuesday morning. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Considered essential workers, employees in the child protection assessment and investigations department of Beltrami County Health and Human Services continue their work on Tuesday morning. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

"For all of our currently open cases, we're still working on them," said Social Services Division director Jeff Lind. "We will still be doing phone, video and when necessary, face-to-face contacts, the latter with appropriate social distancing."

According to Lind, new investigations are still open, with the office taking protection reports for both children and adults. In handling child cases, Lind said the department's licensing staff is addressing questions and concerns on a regular basis from foster parents.

"On our adult services side, we are prioritizing those who live in the community," Lind said. "We have individuals who live in the community, and individuals who live in congregate settings. For the ones in congregate settings, we can assume that the facility is able to do some of that monitoring for us. For those who're living in the community with services being provided, we are prioritizing them, making sure we're following up with them on a more frequent basis, as people are more isolated right now."

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