For Norbert White, each weekday begins with an early-morning conference call, where nearly 80 people from 35 Fort Worth and Tarrant County agencies and nonprofits, all members of the region’s homeless coalition, convene for a daily check-in. Each call is designed to assess what is and isn’t working in the shared effort to protect the area’s homeless population during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of this effort, the city’s convention center was recently converted to an overflow shelter that sleeps 450 people each night, and individual trailers have been set aside for those who are most vulnerable and need to be quarantined. On today’s call, the group discussed the use of local commuter trains to help homeless people in smaller, outlying communities make their way to the shelter.
Norbert, who is president and CEO of Samaritan House, speaks on behalf of the 850 men, women, and children who currently live in four apartment complexes and eight homes operated by the organization, all of which provide affordable housing for people living with HIV and AIDS, or mental and physical disabilities, or those recovering from substance abuse or homelessness.
With so many of his residents highly susceptible to the coronavirus, Norbert and his staff worked quickly in the early days of the crisis to outline new safety measures, communicate new guidelines to residents, and maintain as much support as possible while sending most staff members home to continue their work.
“We’re doing everything we can to protect individuals in our buildings because the consequences would be so negative,” Norbert says. “But there is still potential for exposure, and if someone becomes infected, the entire building is at risk.”
To provide that protection, Samaritan House suspended all visits from volunteers and friends. On-site staff are cleaning during every shift, trying to check residents with a thermometer multiple times a day, and asking if anyone has come into contact with someone who has COVID-19 or related symptoms.
“We have circled the wagons in an effort to protect our community from the possibility of infection,” Norbert says. “But having done so, we could still fail.”
Though visitations are prohibited because the community is so vulnerable, residents can still come and go as they please — whether to shop, see a doctor, or visit a friend. Since the mission of Samaritan House is to help residents gain independence, allowing freedom is part of that promise. “Everyone has a lease, and the lease gives them rights,” Norbert says.
The organization is still able to provide three meals a day to residents in its single-room occupancy building, but the dining room where residents once sat together is now a to-go operation. Each of six wings in the building is assigned a certain pick-up time to prevent overcrowding, and most residents take meals back to their apartments to dine alone.
Changes in meal service have also placed new and significant demands on the organization’s budget. In the past, supper clubs sponsored by local churches and other organizations provided dinner for residents. Volunteers from these groups served the food, helped clean up, and offered camaraderie and fellowship for residents. Now, Norbert says, people are not only missing the relationships they enjoyed, but he’s spending about $10,000 a month to supply what was previously donated in-kind.
Residents are adjusting as best they can, Norbert says, but he can sense a growing anxiety within the facility. He worries about those with disabilities who need regular, ongoing care. “If they fall out of care, it could be fatal,” he says. “Put that health element on top of what I just described — the loneliness, isolation, worrying about contracting the virus — we’ve disrupted the pace of their lives.”
Norbert believes the anxiety makes a fragile situation even more delicate. Several weekends ago, three residents were taken to the hospital — one for a heart ailment, one for a kidney infection, and one for an asthma attack. None were caused by the coronavirus, but the pandemic’s far-reaching effects only heightened concern and put everyone on-edge.
A week or so later, another resident died suddenly in his bed. Norbert rushed to have the body tested for COVID-19, then isolated all 50 residents in the building until the results arrived a day later. The resident was not a victim of the coronavirus, results showed, but the resulting anxiety across the building was difficult to bear.
This crisis has also curtailed much of the onsite support offered at Samaritan House, including substance abuse counseling, nutrition coaching, ESL education, GED preparation, mentors, tutors, and a very popular Kids Club that served 30 to 40 kids twice a week. But Norbert and his staff have moved as much as they can online, trying to maintain as much continuity as possible.
“You sometimes have the sense that you’re the little boy with his finger in the dike,” Norbert says. “I don’t mind being that little boy, but you want to feel good about what you’re doing, and you sense that somewhere out there in front of you is danger.”
Norbert came to this work at Samaritan House because he saw first-hand the danger the AIDS epidemic wrought across the US in the late 1980s and 90s — and in decades since. His good friend and college roommate died of AIDS at the age of 28. Norbert was not an activist at the time. In fact, he spent 35 years working as a corporate executive for global communications companies, like AT&T and Verizon.
He had plenty of money, he says, but finally needed “something that gave me a greater sense of self-worth. I didn’t feel very good about what I was doing.”
That’s when Norbert became a business mentor to Samaritan House — and later a board member, and finally, seven years ago, president and CEO. He says the organization has tripled in size during his tenure. And thankfully, Samaritan House entered this crisis with a budget strongly in the black.
“But I get greater joy looking into the eyes of the residents we serve and seeing their situations improving than I do looking at the bottom line and finding, say, $10,000 more. My mother taught me to value people and to understand that how much money you have is not a key determinant in what your value is. The best people I know are the people we serve. They’ve been tested in ways most millionaires have not. Our people have great value. And great strength.”