Supporting Those Who Support Our Community
Photographs by Jon Cherry
Service providers for people experiencing homelessness, such as shelters, food pantries, and permanent supportive housing, are arguably the most critical players when it comes to addressing regional homelessness. They provide food, shelter, and critical support. They receive the individuals that have not been reached or have struggled to receive support from preventative services.
Undoubtedly, we are in need of more organizations to work further upstream in order to decrease the chances of people becoming homeless, but quite often these emergency services organizations are literally the difference between life and death for our most vulnerable neighbors. With a pandemic sweeping the globe, restrictions, social distancing, and working to keep their staff and clientele safe, these organizations face even more obstacles to serve the homeless population. “Trying to gauge what we need to do to stay ahead of the problems has been really difficult. Everybody wants to work preventively rather than get to a point of crisis with an individual but it’s really hard to stay ahead of that with this pandemic. We don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know when this is going to end, it’s completely unprecedented which makes it even harder to provide preventive services,” says Leslea Townsend Cronin, Executive Director of the Southern Indiana Homeless Coalition.
Quite often these emergency services organizations are literally the difference between life and death for our most vulnerable neighbors.
Prior to building and launching the program, Know Homelessness, we spent several months meeting with local service providers for the homeless population to understand what they do, what barriers they face, and learn how we might be able to support their work. We learned that often public perception of homelessness acts as a massive barrier, preventing people from supporting these organizations and making it more difficult for them to serve people in need. That was prior to the pandemic, now the needs have dramatically increased.
As we prepare for winter amidst the pandemic, the end of the eviction moratorium, and all of the additional unknowns, it is even more important to understand, be empathetic to, and do what we can to support the homeless population in our community and the people and organizations that work hard every day to serve them. We had the opportunity to talk to those working on the front lines of homelessness to understand how regional homelessness has been impacted by current events. We wanted to share some of the conversations we had in order to highlight the heroic work these organizations are doing with the hope of garnering more support.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified all of the issues that we work on and has made the issue of homelessness and housing insecurity apparent in our community. A global health crisis has exposed the fractures that we have always known to have existed,” says George Eklund, Director of Education and Advocacy at the Louisville Coalition for the Homeless.
“Before the pandemic we were seeing, on average, 165 per day. Now we see about 99 per day because our capacity is limited with social distancing,” says Mary Luke Noonan at St. John’s Center for Homeless Men. “We can’t meet all needs of all the clients that come each day,” she continued, noting that there is a constant line outside their door when they open at 7am. As one person leaves, another is allowed in, as they are only able to serve 24 men at a time with the social distancing requirements. Unfortunately St. John’s is not alone in having to decrease capacity because of the coronavirus. Jason Crigler at Re:Center Ministries said the women’s program there has seen “a significant jump because there’s another day shelter for women in town that had to really decrease their hours but there are all these women that need services.” After speaking with a few service providers it became clear that capacity has significantly decreased due to social distancing, funds, staffing, etc, but the need for services has not decreased and those organizations who are still up and running are working tirelessly to meet that need.
A lack of capacity during the warmer months is inconvenient. A lack of capacity during the winter though can be deadly. “The reality that winter is coming to the Ohio River Valley keeps me up at night,” George Eklund shares, “This seasonal change is happening at a time when the CDC Moratorium on eviction is ending, utility shut off moratoriums are scheduled to end, and we still must maintain social distancing in shelters. I am worried that our neighbors are going to be in danger. Without bold actions at the city, state, and national level, we must get prepared for a massive amount of people getting displaced in January and February.” In the winter there are shelters that open when temperatures go below 35 degrees, they’re called White Flag Shelters. There is one White Flag shelter in Southern Indiana and it’s run by the Southern Indiana Homeless Coalition. “We have really had to change how we look at that because of COVID-19. We were almost 100% volunteer-run, we have one paid staff, and roughly 9-12 volunteers per night,” says Leslea Cronin Townsend. A lot of volunteers have contacted them and said they can’t help this year because they are at high risk for the coronavirus due to age or medical history. Beyond that, Leslea predicts the numbers of people seeking shelter on White Flag nights are going to double or even triple. “People are going to be a lot less likely to let homeless family members sleep on their couch or let families stay with them because of the fear of Covid.”
The mental and emotional impacts of the coronavirus have had implications on most people in the world. A lot of our collective ‘normals’ have been uprooted. Mary Luke Noonan shared that the people at St. John’s “don’t have the option to be healthy at home. They can’t follow the governor’s instruction, there just isn’t that option. We’ve definitely seen an increase in anxiety about the virus itself and the same frustration that we all feel, we can’t necessarily live the life that we want to right now. They can’t get all of the services they need or want.”
“We are not in this alone, we are in this together and we have to work together.”
Additionally, people experiencing homelessness often already have some degree of isolation. This has perhaps helped reduce the numbers of homeless individuals testing positive for the coronavirus but the additional social distancing requirements on top of an often existing lack of community has been really difficult for many people. Jason Crigler shared that “usually as people graduate from the addiction recovery program or as they are getting closer to graduating, we try to hammer into them not to isolate.” Isolation has been encouraged and even enforced in some ways throughout the pandemic and has made recovery for some people who are struggling with addiction or mental health issues even harder. “The fear of relapse is real, the fear of suicide is real,” Jason says, “‘Who’s next?’ is a common unhelpful thought I have on my drive home from work.”
One positive thing this pandemic has brought is to show us our common humanity – to show us our inter-dependency on our neighbors – despite our differences. Leslea Cronin Townsend said that “one thing that has been honestly really fantastic is that this has really forced our community to work together, it has forced our agencies to work together, it’s forced us to talk to each other and say ‘Hey, what’s going on and how can I help?’” Lelsea went on to say that the agencies in Southern Indiana haven’t always been quick to collaborate and work together and problem solve. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for them to do so because really, that’s the only option. Mary Luke Noonan emphasized that, “we need each other. Whether it’s wearing masks to keep each other safe, washing hands, keeping distance, this has really strengthened relationships by showing us how vital we are to one another. I’m hoping that this will show us, as a human race, that we are not in this alone, we are in this together and we have to work together.”