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The Aquilian

The Aquilian

    McKenna Center copes with COVID-19

    By Alex Svenburg –

    The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of life for everyone across the world, and the Gonzaga community has been no exception. The Father McKenna Center, an integral part of the Gonzaga community and part of what makes campus so unique, has had its own challenges in dealing with COVID-19. The McKenna Center has had to find new ways to adapt in order to continue to serve its purpose in helping the homeless and other poverty-stricken people in the D.C. area. The McKenna Center has been forced to suspend some of its programs and had to change the way it operates others. 

    One of the center’s four programs, the day program, has been suspended. 

    “On Tuesday [March] 17th, we suspended the day program. This was in cooperation with the D.C. Department of Human Services; they asked that the overnight shelters stay open 24/7, serving three meals a day instead of just dinner. They asked that day programs close to encourage people to stay at the shelters rather than traveling around and getting exposed,” said Dr. Kimberly Cox, president and director of the McKenna Center. “In addition, we certainly would not maintain social distancing when we historically would have 75 to 80 men in the building, so regrettably we closed that down. We explained to all the fellas who were here why we were closing down and encouraged them to stay in the shelters so that they don’t get exposed. So, hopefully the guys in the program are doing okay.” 

    Another of the center’s programs, the hypothermia program, has thankfully been able to stay open, although the Center has to change the way the program operates. 

    “Our hypothermia program was supposed to end on April 1. Obviously we couldn’t do that; we couldn’t send these guys back to the shelters or back to the streets because they were all in the middle of job interviews, training, housing interviews—of course, all of that shut down. So they couldn’t make any progress towards ending their homelessness. So we’ve agreed that we will maintain our hypothermia program until it is safe for them to find a job or housing,” Cox explained.

    Men at the McKenna Center help organize food and other supplies. / Photo taken by McKenna Center Staff

    The McKenna Center is also experimenting with teleworking in order to ensure a safer working environment. 

    “I’ve had to ask three of the eight full-time staff members to telework because I want as few people coming in the building as possible. So far it’s going okay. There’s significantly fewer people in the building, that is for sure. Right now, my prime concern is to keep the men that we have in the program safe,” Cox said. 

    One program the McKenna Center has had to adapt is its daily food pantry. 

    “Our food pantry remains open from 10:45 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. just like it has always been. We’ve had to adjust it because we can’t maintain social distancing inside the building or inside our food pantry,” Cox said. 

    For those who have ever helped serve in the food pantry, they know how tight and small the space is. It would be virtually impossible to maintain social distancing practices inside the food pantry. 

    “How we’ve adapted is that we now have a shopping list with all of the items that are available, and we are serving our food pantry guests outside in front of St. Al’s. We’ve set up chairs that are six feet apart, people come up to the desk, and they register and pick off everything they need,” Cox explained. “Then, staff and guys from the hypothermia program go back and collect the groceries that folks want and hand them to people on the street.”

    One surprising challenge stemming from the pandemic is the amount of people coming to the center for their services.

    “We’ve had fewer come into the food pantry than usual,” Cox said.

     Possible explanations for this unexpected occurrence include that people are already stocked up on supplies, people are too afraid to go out and get supplies, people are receiving supplies from other community food distribution hubs sponsored by the Capital Area Food Bank or the McKenna Center’s patrons believe that the McKenna Center is no longer open. However, Cox believes that the center will see an increase in the amount of people they are serving. 

    “At the end of March, we were having 30 people come in. We usually have a dip at the first of the month, usually people get their checks and so they don’t have a need for groceries, so I fully expect that next week that the numbers will start going up,” Cox said.

    Men at the McKenna Center stitching face masks. / Photo taken by McKenna Center Staff

    One of the McKenna Center’s most important goals during this time is ensuring that people know that they are open and that they have supplies to give. The center has recently been made one of the community food hubs sponsored by the Capital Area Food Bank. What this means is that anyone with a valid ID from Washington, D.C. can come pick up groceries. 

    “The food bank has delivered to us at this point a thousand cases of canned goods. We’ve got vegetables, soup, rice, beans, lentils, produce and dairy products. What we do is we just bundle up about 12 cans of canned and packaged goods, a variety of vegetable and dairy products and package those up,” Cox said. “The one thing that we’re having trouble getting from the food bank is cereal, soup, especially chunky Campbell’s, canned meat, canned chicken and canned tuna. Those are items that we could definitely make use of. Our community food hub is open four days a week, Monday through Thursday, from one 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. We’ve been getting about 20 people a day coming in, which surprises me; I was expecting more.”

    Because so many people may be suffering from job loss right now, McKenna Center has the opportunity to widen the demographic they serve. Cox hopes that those who may be new to difficult times knows that McKenna Center can help them, too. 

    “It is my hope that people will save their money to pay rent, utilities, and mortgages and come to us to get groceries. Because in the McKenna Center we’re really trying to end homelessness and one way to end homelessness is to support people staying in their homes, so it’s really important for people to know that we’re here. None of us want to keep this food; we really want to get it to families, seniors, young people who’ve just lost their jobs. This is a tough time for everybody,” Cox said.

    While students can’t volunteer at McKenna Center, Gonzaga’s campus ministry team is working with McKenna Center to set up plenty of ways for the Gonzaga community to still help out. 

    “Campus Ministry is continuing to support the McKenna Center during distance learning,” stated David Bowles, associate director of Campus Ministry at Gonzaga.  “Fifteen students along with a few members of the Campus Ministry team met this past Friday on Zoom with Dr. Cox. She shared an update on the center and the many ways we can support those who benefit from the services. She also shared that there is a high level of stress among the guests at the center during these uncertain times and to please keep them to our prayers. On the call, Gonzaga students asked great questions and many were ready to step up to support the center.”

    A list of the ways the Gonzaga community can help out the McKenna Center.

    Cox’s message for those who wish to help is this.

    “What we have done for folks who want to donate […] staff is here between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. everyday, and if someone is going to come and drop something off just give us a call, let us know and just unload it at the front of the building, and we will pick it up. Morning hours are best. It would make a big difference, because the only protein that we can guarantee to put in these grocery bags is peanut butter, which is fine, but we would really like to be able to send canned tuna or chicken. It would really make a difference,” Cox said.

    If you would like to donate food items to the McKenna Center, specifically items such as cereal, soup and canned meat, you can call the McKenna Center at 202-842-1112 or email them at [email protected] to set up a time to drop off your donation.



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      Madeline AlbrittainApr 22, 2020 at 1:49 pm

      Thank you for keeping us informed about all the good work the McKenna Center continues to do!