Like all medical workers who treat coronavirus patients, Sauto is afraid he might somehow pass the virus to his family, he said.
“Everyone I know [at the hospital] is doing the same thing,” Sauto, 58, said. “I miss hugs from my kids and my wife — that’s the hardest part. But we all know it’s necessary. We can’t take the risk.”
For nearly three weeks, though, Sauto was able to not fret about possibly infecting his family because he was staying in a free apartment provided by the Caregiver Shelter Fund — a nonprofit started by Airriva, a property management company in Columbus, Ohio. The agency fills up empty corporate apartments and condominiums with doctors and nurses working on the front lines of the pandemic, no payment required.
Last month, Sauto checked into a fully furnished condo near the hospital. Although he didn’t have much time to appreciate the new big-screen television in his temporary digs, he was pleasantly surprised to hear a knock on the door one night from somebody at a nearby restaurant offering plates of hot lasagna to him and other medical workers, he said.
“They were more than accommodating — it was wonderful to come and go without any worries,” said Sauto, who took Airriva up on the housing offer after his wife, Isabel, came across the new nonprofit online.
“Initially, I thought I might be able to stay there for a discounted rate, but they told me, ‘No, it’s gratis, with everything included,’ ” he said. “It was a much-welcomed surprise."
Airriva offers more than 150 free apartments and condos to doctors, nurses, paramedics and other first responders throughout Ohio, along with rooms at a variety of hotels in cities such as Miami, Boston and Los Angeles.
It was the idea of Sean Whittaker, a partner sales executive at Airriva who was distressed to hear stories of care providers living in garages, basements, campers and cars so they wouldn’t expose their families to the coronavirus.
“These people are risking their lives to keep us safe,” Whittaker, 28, said. “So we need to do what we can to help keep them safe, right?”
“When travel came to a halt, almost all of our corporate guests canceled their business trips, so we had a surplus of empty housing on hand,” he added. “Our occupancy went from 95 percent to 10 percent overnight."
Whittaker and his co-workers asked property owners whether they’d be on board with providing caregivers a free place to stay, and almost all were enthusiastic about having a way to give back to their communities, he said.
Brent Zimmerman is one of those property owners, with several condo units in Cleveland.
“I was happy to help after recognizing that so many first responders were truly scared to go home to their families and possibly infect their loved ones due to being in contact all day with sick patients,” Zimmerman, 42, said.
To cover the costs of employing people to thoroughly scrub each unit between stays and replenish cleaning and paper products along with masks and gowns for housekeeping crews, Airriva is raising money with the goal of opening up hundreds of additional apartments and condos. More than $60,000 has been raised so far, Whittaker said.
“Nobody should have to resort to sleeping in their garage,” he said. “And a lot of front-line medical workers don’t have money to pay for a hotel for two or three months at a time.”
As money is raised to employ more professional cleaners, additional units will be opened up, said Whittaker, who initially put word out about the Caregiver Shelter Fund on Facebook.
“The response has been so incredible that we now have a waiting list of people wanting to stay in one of our units for a few weeks or a month and give themselves and their families a much-needed break,” he said. “It’s not a vacation for them by any means, but it’s a safe and clean place to rest for a while."
For Jeanne Pharo, a 58-year-old registered nurse at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, the caregiver charity allowed her to get a solid night’s sleep for the first time in months, she said.
Last fall, Pharo took in the cognitively impaired son of a friend who had passed away. At 38, he is fairly high-functioning but needs somebody to help him with his finances and other important decisions, she said.
“My goal was to see if I could get him functioning at some point in his own apartment, and then coronavirus hit,” she said. “I’d been worried about exposing him to the virus or vice versa.”
When Pharo heard about Airriva's shelter fund, she called the company with a request: How would they feel about allowing her housemate to stay in a condo for a month so she could continue her own routine without worry?
“They immediately said yes, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am,” she said. “It’s hard for a health-care provider to ask for help — I don’t want to take from somebody else. Giving is what we do in our jobs. Having this option made available has been an immense relief, and it’s provided my friend a safe place to learn to be independent, as well.”
Most medical workers stay an average of 10 days, Whittaker said, with some staying for several weeks or a month.
Sauto left the Airrivia condo after an 18-day stay and checked into a nearby Hampton Inn.
“I probably could have stayed longer, but I didn’t want to overstay my welcome,” said Sauto, who FaceTimes with his wife and kids at night. “Since we’re in for a long haul with this virus, though, you never know. It’s really nice to know that this option is out there.”
Have a story for Inspired Life? Here’s how to submit.