Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary's Place

"Kids are leg-huggers," says Marty Hartman. "It's hard with them." As she strolls through a Mary's Place center, children are clumped in small groups, impromptu homeschooling for students who don’t have homes. Public school teacher volunteers lead read-alouds, science talks, and dance sessions, but the 300 children spread across Mary’s Place shelters—like any kids—struggle to socially distance. They reach out to Marty, the executive director, and the staff not only in fear but in the natural drive for connection.

Two weeks ago, Mary's Place opened its newest shelter, its tenth site, in dedicated floors of an Amazon building, more than 20 years after Mary’s Place first began serving homeless families in a local church. This new space was supposed to be a big deal for both parties; a large-scale donation from Amazon and, more symbolically, an invitation to the city’s unhoused to share a roof with its thriving tech. But even absent a big opening ceremony, the new shelter meant that over the cold snap last weekend, Mary’s Place didn't have to turn anyone away.

On any given day, Marty has a number in the front of her mind: her estimate of how many local children will sleep in cars or outdoors that night. The elusive goal is zero, a brass ring that may dangle even further from reach as the coronavirus descends. Still, she’s as upbeat as ever. “We’re doing well!” she says, in her ever-positive tone. “We are still moving people out of shelter every day." It only takes about $1,900 in funds to transition a family to a more permanent residence.

Marty with some of Mary's Place's smallest guests.

Until then, kids’ clubs take the place of school. Mary’s Place has begun taking the temperatures of every guest, more than 1,000 readings a day, posting social distancing primers in multiple languages, and screening comers for signs of illness. “They’re really hard conversations,” says Marty, knowing the ordeals homeless families face before they even reach their doors. “We ask, ‘Does your kid have a fever?’ But every kid under five has a runny nose.”

So Marty and Mary’s Place are bracing for what’s to come, stocking isolation rooms with not merely water and medicines but puzzles and books for patients that may enter quarantine with nothing. If necessary, they’ll convert one entire shelter into a medical treatment site. “Food's becoming scarcer,” says Marty, thinking of the donated restaurant food that used to stock their kitchens. They anticipate a drop in monetary donations as the economy constricts, “canceled spring luncheons and galas and fundraisers,” she says. But need will only grow. “There will be more families lapsed into homelessness. We're gearing up for that.”

Besides her own healthy reserves of confidence, the very leg-hugging Marty sees from kids is a sign of what will get them all through. “Our guests are incredibly resilient, even as they are scared and they are facing a lot of trauma. We only find hope in relationship and community.”

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