The men’s bunks are shown at Sojourner House, the downtown Eau Claire homeless shelter operated by Catholic Charities. The shelter’s maximum capacity has shrunk from 61 to 48 as a result of new restrictions intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

New restrictions in place as a result of the coronavirus pandemic have forced Sojourner House to reduce its capacity and turn more homeless clients away.

Despite being classified as an essential service, Eau Claire’s largest homeless shelter was forced to stop using five recliners in its bunk house and other recliners used for emergency overflow housing in its community room, director Brianne Berres said Thursday.

The changes reduced Sojourner’s maximum capacity from 61 to 48. Meanwhile, capacity also decreased from 20 to 8 individuals at the Eau Claire Overnight Warming Center established this winter to accommodate Sojourner’s overflow population on cold nights in the basement of a former Mennonite church owned by Christ Church Cathedral.

“At this point we don’t have enough space for everybody who is seeking shelter,” Berres said.

The loss of capacity means Sojourner, which has been full every night, has had to turn more clients away, Berres said, noting that some folks can stay with friends or relatives temporarily but others are forced to spend nights in parking ramps, under bridges or at other outdoor locations.

Guidelines about social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are difficult to follow in the crowded bunkhouse, but Sojourner officials are doing their best to follow recommended precautions to keep clients, staff and volunteers healthy, Berres said.

In a few cases, where bunks are adjacent, that means asking clients to sleep head to foot to limit the chances of spreading the virus.

“We are working diligently with our community partners to find an alternate location where people facing homelessness in Eau Claire can stay and be out of the elements and also have the safe spacing that is now required,” Berres said.

Another problem for clients is that many of the places where they usually hang out during the day, such as the YMCA, L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library and Positive Avenues — have closed temporarily or limited their hours, Berres said.

As the number of local coronavirus cases grows, she said, that means people with nowhere safe to go potentially could be at higher risk of contracting and further spreading the virus, exacerbating the problem.

With some regular volunteers considered vulnerable because of age or underlying medical conditions, Catholic Charities, which operates Sojourner, is hiring temporary staff and seeking more volunteers to get through the pandemic.