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Staff say more kids need a safe place as stress, unemployment and domestic violence increase during the COVID-19 outbreak.

By Emma Gibson

An emergency shelter for youth in Southern Arizona says more children are seeking out its safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a need for more staff, food and cleaning supplies.

Reunion House is the youth shelter connected to Our Family Services in Tucson. It houses 12- to 17-year-olds for an average of three weeks each. Some stay longer, some only a couple of days. Cindy McClain, the manager of Reunion House, said the shelter plans to stay open during the pandemic in order to provide a safe harbor for kids in unstable homes.

“I just think it’s important to remember, even after COVID goes away, that we do have a significant homeless [youth] population in Tucson that people may just not be aware of,” McClain said.

McClain said that since the pandemic began, the shelter has housed on average of eight kids a night — two more than the average before COVID-19.

She said that 1 in 5 kids arrive at the shelter after coming out to their family as LGBTQ. Others come from households experiencing financial problems, homelessness or domestic violence.

McClain said that with the overall increase in stress and unemployment during the pandemic, the shelter has also seen domestic abuse reports rise throughout the community and across the country. McClain said the shelter is preparing for the arrival of the children affected by that abuse.

She said for many kids currently at the shelter, the pandemic is stressful, but they can speak to trained staff members about their feelings.

“These are kids that have unstable home lives to begin with, and school was their normalcy during the day, so now that that one piece of normalcy is gone, they’re getting more antsy,” McClain said. “They’re getting more anxious.”

McClain said since the children aren’t going to school in-person these days, the shelter’s expenses are increasing, and it will be hiring two staff members. She said the shelter is also going through its food and cleaning supplies at four times the usual rate.

She said that at this time, none of children or staff at Reunion House have developed COVID-19 symptoms, but if anyone did contract the new coronavirus, there would be room to isolate the minor or back-up staff to replace the employee.

“We still screen the kids for any contagious diseases,” McClain said. “They might come in with strep throat or pink eye, or any number of things that we would need to isolate them anyway. So as far as COVID goes, we’re just following the same protocols. It’s pretty much business as usual.”