TUPELO • Service providers continue working to support vulnerable homeless populations, but amid COVID-19, their approaches are changing to keep both those they serve and their staffs safe.
Homeless providers have been meeting since March 13 to plan, said Mississippi State Continuum of Care (CoC) director Hannah Maharrey.
“What (homeless providers) can do is try to flatten the curve as much as we can within the homeless community, because we actually have the ability to communicate with our homeless community,” Maharrey said. “We know where they are, we know them by name, we have them identified and have a working relationship with them already.”
Mississippi Balance of State Continuum of Care (CoC) is a coalition of housing and homeless advocates working under the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines to provide housing and offer long-term services. HUD allocates grants only to partners in CoC networks.
The same precautions that the CDC has released for the general public applies to the homeless community, Maharrey said. They encourage homeless individuals to use safe hygiene practices and social distancing, and ask that those with symptoms call or visit a local urgent care or medical clinic. She emphasizes that they should not visit the ER.
The Mississippi Balance of State CoC is working with the Department of Health, Mississippi Department of Human Services and MEMA to determine what to do if a homeless individual were to test positive for COVID-19.
“This is such a nuanced issue in the fact that it’s going to require a lot more and higher level of resources than we currently have to truly address. That’s why we’re trying to let the state partners determine what resources we do have,” Maharrey said.
In the meantime, Maharrey said all they can do is prevent people from getting sick in the first place and continue meeting their actual needs and necessities, whether that be food, shelter or clothing.
Because homeless individuals may not access media in the same way others do, outreach coordinators hand out informational fliers to make them aware. Recently, coordinators went throughout the community to provide hygiene kits and other resources to both sheltered and unsheltered individuals.
In Tupelo, North Mississippi coordinator for Mississippi United to End Homelessness CoC (MUTEH, Inc.) Sara Ekiss said because of CDC guidelines for social distancing, advocates are looking for ways to interact with homeless individuals without risking person to person contact. Ekiss said she has the phone numbers of at least one person in each encampment and calls daily. She remains in daily communication with the Salvation Army on ways to provide resources.
“One thing that’s helpful is we do have a good idea of who is currently homeless in Tupelo and we have contact information for them. If we don’t, we’ll find any other way to get in touch with them,” Maharrey said.
That can mean using text messages, phone calls, Facebook, emails, etc. Advocates also make use of feeding programs such as Saints’ Brew, a breakfast program of All Saints Episcopal Church that provides meals to approximately 70 individuals Monday through Friday, and Salvation Army’s food programs to give information, resources and leave messages.
Maharrey said homeless individuals are more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to some being older and having health problems or compromised immune systems. She is also working to dispel any stigma that homeless people would be more likely to pass COVID-19 to others.
Tupelo Corps officer Whitney Morton said there have been modifications to some of the processes of day-to-day business at the Salvation Army of Tupelo to make sure human needs are still met.
Volunteers still cook meals in the kitchen, but have moved to to-go lunches and dinners rather than dining in as of March 15. Lunch is served from noon to 12:30 p.m. Dinner is from 5 to 5:30 p.m.
Providing to-go meals also presents challenges. Morton said it is harder to provide balanced meals in a to-go box, and they are worried about the environmental impact and added expense of using more paper goods.
Morton said in order to be mindful of the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for COVID-19, they don’t have as many volunteers come in and limit kitchen staff to approximately three at a time. They have also handed out individual towelettes to homeless individuals to use for sanitizing and cleaning.
The Salvation Army Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi (ALM) has implemented policies to limit the spread of the virus, according to a press release. Staff are more vigilant about cleaning the facility, making sure to place special attention on high traffic areas. Residents are also encouraged to wipe down their areas and clean, and staff makes sanitizing supplies available. Additionally, if residents or staff members become sick, isolation/quarantine areas will be established, the release said.
“We continue to follow the CDC guidelines and our protocol within the Salvation Army for this kind of incident. We do feel really thankful and blessed to be part of an organization that is all over the world so that we can learn best practices,” Morton said. “It’s definitely helped us stay ahead of things in what we need to implement, when we need to implement, to make sure everyone stays safe and healthy.”
The Meals on Wheels program will continue delivering meals to the elderly. People can come to the Salvation Army center to pick up food boxes.
Other outreach efforts, such as Showers of Love of Life Culture Ministry, will also continue serving homeless populations but look to change practices in order to protect clients. Founder Tonya Moore and program overseer Charles Moore said they would continue offering clients free shower facilities and laundry every Saturday and Monday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. but would limit it to one at a time to avoid crowding. Their homeless feeding program will continue, but they will offer only to-go plates.
There are several ways to assist. Ekiss said she wants to direct community efforts to helping house homeless people and asks those interested in volunteering for outreach or wanting to help homeless individuals find stability and housing to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Even during the middle of all this, we’re still trying to house people off the streets,” Ekiss said. “The end goal is that every homeless person in Tupelo would be offered housing and be accepted in housing, so we’re always looking for landlords that are willing to work with us and also any kind of donations for people moving into a home.”
Morton said any contribution of food or cleaning supplies, especially Clorox wipes, would be appreciated. She also encourages the community to check on their neighbors and stay aware of the mental health impact of social distancing.
“It’s going to take a community to respond and make sure that everyone gets through this time together, and even though we have to keep our social distance, we still have neighborly responsibility to yes, keep that distance, but to still care for each other, to lift each other up in prayer and contribute however we can,” Morton said.
Showers of Love will accept any donations of gloves and masks, as well as any financial donations.
Maharrey encourages community members to support their local community programs, such as Saints’ Brew, the Tupelo/Lee Hunger Coalition, Showers of Love, the Salvation Army and MUTEH.
“They need your help and they need your funding,” Maharrey said.
More information can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/homeless-shelters/plan-prepare-respond.html.