RALEIGH, N.C. ― Bars, restaurants and other businesses across the country are rapidly shutting their doors and limiting hours of operation, and those in North Carolina are no exception. But one community center in Raleigh is determined to keep its doors open as long as possible for some of the people most susceptible to the coronavirus: the state’s homeless population.
The Love Wins Community Engagement Center, which is operated as a ministerial nonprofit by St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church and local advocacy group Love Wins, said it is the only known day shelter in Wake County. For many residents, the center is now the only place where they can get food during the pandemic, Director Rev. Vance Haywood said.
The center currently serves between 120 and 150 meals a day. To minimize physical contact, the center has changed its schedule to 30-minute meal increments, limited dining room attendance to 10 people at a time and instituted a to-go option. People can also make appointments to shower or use the computer, with volunteers sanitizing each area after every use.
Wake County has the second-highest homeless population in the state, and an estimated 9,314 people experienced homelessness on any given day last year, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. The community center has already seen an increase in visitors during mealtimes.
“A lot of meal programs have started shutting down, and people are very grateful that we’re still open,” Haywood said. “But they’re terrified that something is going to happen and we’re going to have to close, and they don’t know where they’re going to get their meals from.”
Normally, the center offers a variety of resources for people who are homeless, including hot meals three times a day, and collaborates with other agencies to offer drug and injury prevention services, screenings for sexually transmitted infections, and pastoral counseling sessions, Haywood said. It’s also one of the few shelters in the area that specifically offers services for the LGBTQ community.
The coronavirus pandemic has ground many of these services to a halt. But Haywood is determined to continue offering essential services, including food, a place to wash up and computers so people can stay connected to the rest of the world.
Homeless populations are some of the most at-risk in the nation during any public health crisis, said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“The characteristics that make people particularly vulnerable to disease are common amongst homeless people,” Berg said. “They are, in some ways, the front door to the whole health system.”
Those characteristics include living in crowded shelters — which makes it impossible for people to practice social distancing, even when they feel sick — as well as the inability to sanitize by taking showers and a lack of access to nutritious foods.
Community leaders need to figure out a way to help shelters find new spaces to separate their residents and find funds to secure those spaces and additional supplies, Berg said. “This has got to be a situation where leadership steps up.”
One opportunity lies in the proposed economic stimulus bill, which could pass Congress this week. But when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) released the bill last Thursday, it didn’t include anything about resources for homeless shelters or community centers.
“We’re working really hard to get them to include plans to help communities deal with homelessness,” Berg said. “We’ve been talking to anybody on Capitol Hill who will talk to us about it.”
Until more federal funding becomes available, state and county leaders are helping homeless people and other vulnerable communities on an ad hoc basis. In North Carolina, shelters have spent the last week desperately trying to coordinate and figure out best practices, said Denise Neunaber, executive director at the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness.
“It’s very different from county to county, because everyone is working with their county public health department,” Neunaber said. “Some of them are very connected with the homeless system, and some are not.”
Neunaber’s organization is trying to create a comprehensive list of shelters and nonprofits providing housing in the state to help coordinate funding distribution and resource allocation.
“Communities are trying to figure out who are the populations that need things, and shelters are trying to figure out how they can stay open 24 hours a day, especially if we need to shelter in place,” Neunaber said.
During a call with 42 shelters across North Carolina on Friday, Neunaber said that roughly a quarter of them reported needing cleaning supplies, almost none of them could find face masks and 32 said they didn’t have enough space or any bed dividers. Someone on the call suggested using bed canopies, like the ones that hang over children’s beds, as an alternative.
Over the next few weeks, the NC Coalition to End Homeless hopes to raise funds to secure new spaces, but also to help those on the verge of homelessness retain their housing.
“Sometimes it’s just $200 to help someone stay in the housing that they’re in,” Neunaber said.
Some counties are also contracting with local hotels to provide temporary housing. Operations at the St. John’s MCC/Love Wins Community Engagement Center are holding steady for now, Haywood said, though he worries cleaning supplies and healthy staff may soon start to run short.
“What I’ve tried to tell folks is that even before COVID-19, our community center was home for a lot of people — and it’s the only place where they can get a meal right now,” Haywood said. “We’re asking for resources where we can and will try to keep everything open as long as we can.”
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