‘Everything is getting worse and worse’: coronavirus deepens homeless population struggles
William Rich, 38, discussed being without a place to sleep after his job closed amid the coronavirus pandemic’s expansion in North Carolina at the Inter-faith Council Community Kitchen on Saturday, March 21, 2020. Rich is in the process of filing for unemployment, but is unsure where he’s going to sleep for the foreseeable future. Photo courtesy of Rachel HoTong.
Sitting outside the IFC Community Kitchen in Chapel Hill, William Rich fumbled with a plastic fork and spoon as he looked toward an eerily empty downtown.
“It’s so hard to sleep on Franklin Street because I used to be sleeping in a bed,” he said.
Rich, 38, has experienced homelessness intermittently for years, but the last year has been better.
He enjoys his job at O2 Fitness Carrboro, where he works as a janitor. When he was kicked out of his apartment in October he made a deal with his employer so that he could sleep, shower and keep his belongings at the 24-hour gym.
Once-bustling towns and cities are shuttering under the pressures of the deadly new virus. Businesses frequented by people experiencing food insecurity and homelessness have been forced to close their doors.
Orange, Wake, Durham and Mecklenburg counties issued stay-at-home orders this week. The orders exempt people experiencing homelessness from the order but urge them to find shelter if possible.
O2 Fitness closed on Tuesday, leaving Rich without a job or a place to stay.
He needs to file for unemployment, but first he has to find somewhere to charge his phone. With every restaurant closed for dine-in service, Rich said he’s struggling to access basics like electrical outlets and restrooms.
“I just walked from Franklin Street to Harris Teeter to use the bathroom,” Rich said.
Robert Williams, who’s lived in a tent in Chapel Hill for five years, said he feels restricted by the widespread closures. The Chapel Hill Community Center Park, where he regularly showers, closed two weeks ago.
“It seems that everything is getting worse and worse. Everything is changing,” Williams said.
Organizations in place to support people experiencing homelessness are navigating a new reality in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shelters in Orange, Durham and Wake counties are adjusting their sanitation practices and preparing for the possibility of someone in the shelter contracting the virus.
Wrenn House, a Haven House Services shelter for runaway and homeless youth in Raleigh, is limiting its visitor count and routinely taking the temperatures of both residents and shelter staff.
The Inter-Faith Council for Social Services' Community House and its HomeStart shelters are creating separate sleeping and bathroom spaces for residents who may become sick, Stephani Kilpatrick, IFC's residential services director, said.
Shelters often operate in close quarters, making it difficult for residents to adhere to the CDC recommendation of maintaining a minimum distance of six feet from any potential presence of a COVID-19 case — commonly referred to as “social distancing.”
“We’re asking people to reconfigure sleeping spaces,” Kilpatrick said. “We don’t often have the luxury to place beds three to six feet apart, so we’re looking at a head-to-foot configuration.”
Shelters still need donations and volunteers. Both have become more difficult to come by as people choose to stay home.
“We rely on volunteers pretty heavily for food donations and for meals,” Kilpatrick said. “A lot of volunteers have called out, and we still need that help.”
G.G. Feather, a 70-year-old resident of the IFC Community House men’s shelter, said he has noticed a decrease in supplies such as toilet paper.
Shelters are turning to online donations to fill gaps they may experience in coming weeks.
Two shelter organizations, Urban Ministries of Durham and Raleigh-based Haven House Services, are utilizing Amazon wish lists to update community members as to which supply donations are needed for their residents. Urban Ministries’ list includes non-perishable foods, cleaning supplies, trash bags and styrofoam food containers.
The IFC Community Kitchen on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill said their services will continue to operate normally despite the order.
“Under the stay-at-home orders grocery stores are remaining open, and that’s kind of what (the Community Kitchen is) for people without those resources,” Kristin Lavergne, IFC's community services director, said.
But organizations that provide food to homeless and food insecure people in the area are still having to make significant changes in order to continue their operations while protecting volunteers and the surrounding community.
The IFC Kitchen is only serving food in to-go containers, and meals must be eaten outside of the building. Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen in Raleigh is also offering bag lunches.
Community gathering places, like the IFC Kitchen, are more than just places to get meals - they serve as one of the main locations for the county to share information regarding resources and best practices for managing COVID-19’s spread.
The Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness mapped the county’s homeless system in 2016 to identify any gaps. For Orange County, a lack of street outreach was found to be a big problem.
In an attempt to fill that space, the Partnership relies on existing services and programs that regularly interact with people experiencing homelessness, including the IFC Kitchen, the county jail and the Town’s Crisis Unit.
“It’s incredibly concerning because overwhelmingly, this population is older, male and they have pre-existing medical conditions, so that is sort of all of the high risk factors (for coronavirus),” Partnership coordinator Corey Root said. “I think I’m not the only one who’s losing sleep at night. Our whole system is really concerned about these folks and making sure that they’re understanding what the situation is and what the precautions are.”
For hourly-wage workers, the coronavirus outbreak means the loss of jobs. Applying for unemployment benefits can be a confusing process, one which requires internet access.
The Community Empowerment Fund, a non-profit dedicated to helping people transition out of homelessness and poverty, is working to connect members with helpful resources. One such resource is the Triangle Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, which distributes grants via lottery to Triangle restaurant workers.
The Triangle fund recently connected with the NC Restaurant and Lodging Association to form the NC Restaurant Workers Relief Fund to expand these services.
CEF accepts people experiencing homelessness and poverty as “members” of the fund after individual meetings with CEF’s volunteer advocates. In 2018, CEF served 1,115 actively-engaged members from the Triangle community.
But CEF recently limited operations to a daily two-hour window at its Chapel Hill location, where members could retrieve their mail, make savings withdrawals and pick up bus passes. All other one-on-one appointments have been cancelled.
“I think this has been really hard for the members to adjust to. They are already in so much insecurity, and then to literally be living in a situation where there are so many unknowns has been hard for people to adjust to,” Donna Carrington, CEF's executive director, said.
Carrington said she is most worried about the long-term consequences members could face because of the pandemic.
“What do people do on the other side of this as many incomes are gone, and what financial resources are we going to have as a community to help people because of this?” Carrington said.
For now, nothing is certain. The isolation of homelessness is exponentially augmented by the requirements of limiting the spread of COVID-19, and there is no clear end in sight.
William Rich said he isn’t sure where he’ll sleep while his work is shut down.
“Wednesday, I get my last check,” Rich said. “I’m going to spend a little bit and get a storage unit, get a hotel room for a night and save up to have money to do something for the rest of the month of April.”