Editor’s note: The Cap Times staff is working to provide answers to readers’ questions about coronavirus so they can make sound decisions about their health and daily lives. Staff will update this story as new information becomes available and as we're able to answer more of your questions. Find a form at the bottom of this article to submit questions of your own.
For members of Madison’s homeless community, finding safe places to rest and recuperate is a priority in the best of times. But as the spread of COVID-19 leads to the closure of public facilities, finding shelter is becoming more challenging. When announcements about avoiding gatherings and staying home proliferate, what do those without homes do?
That’s what homelessness advocates like Tami Fleming, executive director of Shelter from the Storm Ministries, are thinking about.
“It’s just a little scary to think about what might happen,” Fleming said. “The first thing I thought is I wondered how many people I’ve known through street outreach aren't going to make it. A lot of people that are homeless are homeless because their health is compromised already. They have to go places where there’s meals and services and that puts them at risk.”
Homeless people in Madison have access to a few services like The Beacon day shelter, the Salvation Army shelter and St.John’s Off the Square Club. But those operations mostly survive thanks to the work of volunteers who are now being told to avoid the kind of contact necessary to deliver their usual services. Fleming also said many homeless spend time at the library or state Capitol.
“Most homeless programs are run by volunteers. Places like The Beacon count on volunteers to run operations like showers, laundry and community meals,” Fleming said. “They all need to keep going for people to stay healthy and clean, but a lot of volunteers are retirees who are going to want to limit their exposure. Last I heard, Beacon was still open; they're just not having outside providers come in.”
As of Tuesday, Madison’s libraries have closed and Fleming wonders if people experiencing homelessness are getting proper access to current and accurate information to begin with.
“The homeless population doesn’t have access to the news. It’s not like they get the paper,” Fleming said. “Maybe some of them have friends who will let them stay, but those friends might be worried that they’ve been exposed. Most of the men are out of shelter days right now. So where are they gonna go when they get sick? There’s no appropriate isolation spaces for people to go when folks get sick.”
The Beacon declined to comment for this story, telling the Cap Times that staff are not doing press interviews at this time. A Tuesday Facebook post from program director John Adams stressed that the shelter’s clients were helping out at the facility.
“Now more than ever they need us, and we will be there for them. At the Beacon, we often say our guests are family, and this is our moment to make sure our family's safety and wellbeing is put first,” Adams wrote.
But Fleming, who used to run volunteer coordination at The Beacon, said that demand for its services, as well as other homelessness resources, will be strained in the coming weeks as small businesses cut back on hours or close altogether and minimum wage workers see their paychecks cut.
“There’s gonna be more demand for homeless services because we don’t know what the economic impact is going to be,” Fleming said. “A lot of the people who come here to Shelter from the Storm are housing insecure already and there will probably be people losing their housing. How many people can survive if they don’t get paid every two weeks?”
Shelter from the Storm is a referral-based temporary housing facility. Fleming said the organization currently houses ten families, about 39 people overall. The facility itself is plenty busy because so many of the residents there are children who are now going to be there all day with schools closed.
“All of a sudden, they’re all here all day for several weeks,” she said. “That’s a challenge keeping those children fed and entertained while also not grouping them together in order to provide social distancing.”
But even Shelter from the Storm has its limits. They, along with many other nonprofits, lost a lot of funding at the beginning of 2020. Fundraising campaigns have not been as successful as they were in the past. Now, more than ever, places like Shelter from the Storm need people to come in and volunteer or do anything they can to donate goods, money or time.
“I’ve been impressed with people from the community calling and asking how they can help out,” Fleming said. “That’s been reassuring but we’re taking this day by day. Trying to keep a cool head and make decisions the best we can.”
Another organization that serves Madison’s homeless, Friends of the State Street Family, has suspended its meal train, which involves volunteers preparing meals for homeless people living on State Street. Friends of the State Street Family is looking at other ways to help feed people and give services.
Jeff Turk, board vice president for the organization, said the organization’s plan is to set up distribution centers at centralized locations such as The Beacon, Porchlight’s shelter at Grace Episcopal Church and the Salvation Army shelter.
“The thing we’re most worried about is the homeless are going to be the most vulnerable in terms of catching this virus and we’ve really limited our outreach altogether,” Turk said. “Today we’re looking at other ways of distributing goods.”
Complicating the plan is the idea that volunteers could be carrying the virus and not show symptoms.
“We don’t want to be carriers and give it to one of our friends because they’re going to struggle with it,” Turk said. “Some of the population aren’t comfortable with shelter areas and have had some bad experiences at them. In any event the goal is to have minimal interaction but still be able to efficiently distribute goods.”
Turk, like Fleming, echoed the sentiments that as nervous as some people are about COVID-19, the everyday person’s fears don’t come close to what the fears are for people experiencing homelessness in a situation like this.
“There’s a lot of fear obviously among the homeless population,” Turk said. “That’s why we’re so passionate about this. I know how I feel. I’ve got a couple of kids and driving by Woodman’s I’m thinking ‘Should I be hoarding food for my family?’. And I think about the people who aren’t able to do that. There’s a lot of fear and we’re doing everything we can to alleviate that and let them know that we’re there for them. The response from other organizations has been tremendous as well.”
As fundraising becomes more difficult, particularly with the strain on cash flow as potential donors stock up or try to save money, organizations need donations.
“Fundraising is gonna be impossible,” Turk said. “This is something we’re going to have to try to get through with friends. People are people at the end of the day. We’re all in this together. Just imagine how you feel right now and then just imagine if you were homeless on top of that. I think you can tap into that insecure feeling.”
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