‘Playing chess with a genius monster.’ Union Rescue Mission’s Andy Bales on the fight against COVID-19 on Skid Row

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Founded in 1891, the Union Rescue Mission is Skid Row’s oldest shelter. While they’ve been serving disadvantaged populations for almost 120 years, the current health crisis has touched the organization and brought a host of new challenges.

In March, the Union Rescue Mission lost one of their own, Gerald Shiroma, to the coronavirus. Since then, about 100 of the mission’s guests and workers have tested positive for COVID-19.

Throughout this pandemic, and for a large portion of the Union Rescue Mission’s recent history, one man has been at the helm of the organization: Andy Bales.

In the long history of the Mission, Bales believes the last eight weeks have been unparalleled. “It has been a nightmare during the day, and it’s given me nightmares at night,” he said. “I know I’m going to be forever-harmed by what we and the team have gone through here.”

While the Mission’s Board of Directors have arranged for counseling services to address the mental anguish of the virus, Bales said the true nature of what he and his team were up against was revealed with the loss of Shiroma.

“As he struggled, we buckled down, and even as he fought for his life, it drew us closer together to just take on this monster covid that has invaded,” said Bales. “It really has been like playing chess with a genius monster as we’ve tried to keep our guests and our staff out of harm’s way.”

Frequent testing of staff and guests at the Mission has revealed a downward trend of positive cases of COVID-19 for several weeks. 

Bales said of the strategy for combating the illness included working with Los Angeles County to get some of the most high-risk people out of the close environment of the Mission.

“We pleaded with the county to get our most frail and vulnerable out of harm’s way and out to private hotels,” Bales said. “The county obliged; they came in, moved many -- I think at least 280 frail and elderly and vulnerable [people] out to private lodging and hotels.”

Bales is among those most at-risk of coming down with the virus. Several years ago, he was working on Skid Row and contracted a flesh-eating bacteria. It attacked his right leg, and it was eventually amputated. In spite of a range of health conditions, Bales says his calling is to face the threat of the coronavirus head-on.

“People didn’t want me to come to work with this COVID-19 because I’m a Type-1 diabetic for 48 years; I have heart disease and kidney disease,” Bales said. “I had a couple heart attacks and a quadruple bypass before I got a kidney transplant, so I have low immunity. But there was no way I wasn’t going to be on the front lines with my team. How could I ask my team to risk their lives and be out on the front line if I wasn’t with them?”