TUPELO • Regional Habitat for Humanity affiliates and the Fuller Center for Housing had to postpone some services due to the coronavirus pandemic but are finding different ways to continue meeting the need for affordable housing.
Habitat for Humanity (HFH) of Northeast Mississippi followed national and international Habitat for Humanity guidelines to close volunteer builds starting March 10. They opened regular volunteering June 13. Executive Director Michelle Shepherd said closing was important to protect volunteers, many of whom are part of age groups vulnerable to COVID-19 or potential homeowners. To continue service, the Northeast Mississippi affiliate’s construction manager continued working on homes on a solo basis as much as possible.
“We’ve just been trying to adapt like everybody else, kind of figure out what the new normal is ... (and) just trying to be cautious and safe moving forward,” Shepherd said.
HFH of Pontotoc, a smaller affiliate, also experienced a halt in all group volunteering following March, but Director Kimberly Easterling said they didn’t stop the administrative side. They continued operations by bringing in independent contractors who could work on their own without a large group and sanitize between contractors, but Easterling said getting volunteers even on a smaller scale during the pandemic has been difficult.
Easterling is meeting with board members to discuss the timeline of future volunteer activities and plan a smaller build for their current home, possibly near the end of summer. She also wants to begin networking to make people aware of applying. Easterling anticipates more people would have applied earlier in the pandemic had the office been open. She hopes to take applications for their next home over the next two months.
“We’ve always had a huge need in Pontotoc, and I think a lot of people don’t know we are here, so a lot of that has been having more publicity about being in Pontotoc,” Easterling said. “That’s generated a lot of calls and asking what the requirements are to qualify for a Habitat Home, and I’ve actually received tons of calls outside of Pontotoc.”
Easterling added that they can only service those in Pontotoc. The issue of affordable housing has become pressing due to the pandemic, Shepherd said.
“Affordable housing issues are always there, but I feel when you have a lot of people filing for unemployment, a lot of people experiencing financial uncertainty and insecurity with their jobs or their current income, it just comes to the public forefront,” Shepherd said.
Fuller Center for Housing of Houston saw an impact on their family selecting process. The small community nonprofit completes a house every two to three years, but Chairman of the Board Randy Rinehart said they accepted applications in January, February and early March in order to select a family starting near the end of March. The board contains all volunteers with full-time jobs elsewhere, and Rinehart said the pandemic impacted their ability to meet.
“We can only do one house, so trying to decide who gets that is the hardest part and that usually takes a month or two, so it’s put us about two months behind,” Rinehart said.
This year, the center received six applications, but due to the delay, Rinehart believes some families have already made housing arrangements. Once the selection is made, the board automatically begins the process to pick the next family. Building usually is a low process, with volunteers working one to two days a month. It takes about a year to build.
With volunteering opening back, Shepherd said HFH of Northeast Mississippi will follow a six-page COVID safety guidelines, including guidelines such as 10 volunteers at a time, temperature checks, strongly recommending wearing masks on site, symptoms questionnaire, disinfection tools and sanitation stations. This will differ from previous volunteerings, where they could have 15 to 20 volunteers on a shift.
Shepherd said the pandemic has slowed down their build schedule. It typically takes four months to complete a house, but Shepherd anticipates another month being added to build time. Even with delays, the organization hosted a virtual home dedication for a completed home, is currently constructing a home in Nettleton, and is seeking a lot in Verona or Tupelo in the next month or so. Board meetings have been hosted virtually, and Shepherd has kept potential homeowners and partners informed of plans.
The pandemic impacted fundraising and volunteer opportunities for all three agencies. Fuller Center usually hosts a cyclist group in April for a work day, which is when many projects would be completed. The group has now been rescheduled for October.
HFH of Northeast Mississippi cancelled a collegiate challenge group for the end of April and is unsure when they can reschedule and are currently in need of financial donations, as well as donations of land and lots. Interested volunteers can contact them to be put on a waitlist for when they can open volunteering to the public again.
HFH of Pontotoc, which operates with grants, saw a slow fundraising period. They are looking for volunteers and have opportunities for individuals to volunteer in an isolated environment. Interested parties can message the HFH of Pontotoc FB page, call their office or leave a message, email or text.
“We’re in just as great a need, if not more during this time of uncertainty, for volunteers,” Easterling said.