“Oh, a storm is threatening
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Ooh yeah, I’m gonna fade away.”
-The Rolling Stones
Shelter. It’s a safe-sounding word, a comforting word, a good ending to the story word. We have all needed shelter at one time or another in life if just to lay our head on a pillow for the night and sleep to be able to face another day. What is shelter, exactly? Well, Merriam-Webster tells us that a shelter is something that covers or affords protection, or an establishment providing food and shelter.
There are shelters like lean-tos in the open forest, homeless shelters in inner-city neighborhoods and animal shelters that care for strays until they might be adopted.
Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?
Shelter fits right into those bottom two sections of the pyramid that talk about basic needs like food, water, rest, security, and safety. If you do not have these basic needs, safe shelter being one of them, then it is very difficult to focus on the more complex, higher needs like relationships and self-actualization.
I have worked in and around shelters run by the Red Cross and other organizations in times of need, and maybe you have too. The traditional shelter layout that most of us envision is a very large, somewhat open space like a church parish hall or a gym, with room for the cots and belongings of hundreds of people who, for some reason, need to be there.
These people are very close to each other, sleeping just a few feet apart. There is usually some kind of communal eating, with shared tables full of foodstuffs and community coffee pots. There are often common bathrooms, albeit cleaned and monitored to the extent possible. Helpers and volunteers often work in very close proximity to those in need.
Some days during my deployment for Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi and Louisiana, I would talk to literally hundreds of people a day, some for one minute, some for fifteen or thirty, depending on need. We worked, ate, comforted, and rested in very close quarters.
There has been the need for this type of sheltering and aid during Hurricane Laura and now during the catastrophic wildfires in California, some of the worst ever.
Shelter has recently become a concept and an operationalized idea that is fraught with challenges. The age of the COVID-19 pandemic has turned on its head the idea of getting many dozens or even hundreds of people in the same large room, living, and eating and breathing in the same vicinity, for days if not weeks at a time. This is virtually impossible. Or is that the keyword? Virtual?
We have all been asked to shelter in place for varying lengths of time since the start of this pandemic.
We have found ourselves staying in our homes for days, weeks, or even months at a time, with little contact with the outside world or even with others in our own extended families.
We have made makeshift home offices, set up school environments for our children, ordered our groceries and meals from companies who will deliver to our door, and driven by for curbside pickup of everything from internet purchases to communion.
We have found that parking by school busses that are reconfigured to be wifi hotspots might be the most reasonable way to stay connected while still sheltering in place, that place being the family vehicle. Our concepts of normal work, education, and providing for our families have been significantly challenged, altered, and modified, some perhaps for the foreseeable future.
What is the new meaning of seeking or providing or benefitting from shelter? There are several aspects to this new pandemic-inspired concept.
First, there will always be the physical component.
The facts as we know them now mandate that we continue to exercise caution in the form of physical distancing at least six feet from others any time we are outside our safe zones, which for most of us is our own home.
This physical distancing, combined with wearing face coverings, gives us the ability to essentially “shelter in place” no matter where we are, so that we can roam a little more freely to get groceries, fill up the car with gas or make short trips as needed.
Emotional support is going to be an ongoing need. This is hard. No question. I talk to people every day who are tired of being cooped up, tired of not seeing their loved one and friends, and tired of basically being on house arrest. We are human animals, and we crave social and emotional togetherness, closeness, and community. That is never going away, but it must be tempered until this pandemic goes away for good.
Connectivity that leads to communication is key. As discussed before by many others, use FaceTime, Skype, messaging apps, email, phone calls, and even good old-fashioned letter writing to keep in touch with those you care about.
The need for connection does not go away just because physical distancing is necessary.
School has been a huge issue for many families over these last many weeks. How do we go back to school? When do we go back? For how many days each week? Virtual versus hybrid versus online versus paper versus-you get the idea. Kids must be sheltered and protected, even as they learn.
This may be in the classroom with plexiglass and masks, or it may be at home with Chromebooks and headphones, or a combination of both.
Education is paramount, but safety is on the hearts and minds of everyone who has ever taken on the wellbeing of a child as a primary responsibility.
Daycare and the ability of parents to work is another major component of this new sheltering in place idea.
Are parents able to supervise kids while still doing their own jobs at home? Must in-home childcare and supervision be obtained in order for parents to go back to the office? Are kids sent back to school rooms that have been modified based on current knowledge in the hope that teachers and kids will all remain healthy?
Almost by definition, over the last six months or more, we have been physically and socially distanced, but we are still very much emotionally connected. That connection and common purpose are the only way that we will survive the stresses of the pandemic, social upheaval, climate change, and an economic downturn that has impacted so many in our country.
Educate yourself. Challenge suppositions that seem spurious or nonsensical to you. Protect yourself and your family in the ways you feel are scientifically based, logically thought out, and in the best interest of all.
Greg Smith is a psychiatrist who blogs at gregsmithmd.