Helping The Homeless Through Covid-19

Friday, March 27th 2020

There’s a huge concern that the homeless are more susceptible to Covid-19 and have fewer places to turn to for help. What plan is in place to help Austin’s homeless during this pandemic and how has protocol changed at the ARCH to cut down on the potential spread of Covid-19 cases? Judy Maggio gets some answers from Amy Price of Front Steps.

Judy Maggio: My first question is, how has the protocol and procedures changed at Front Steps?

Amy Price: We traditionally have day services and will meet 4000 men and women experiencing homelessness a year who come in for restrooms, showers, laundry, to charge a cell phone. We are having to cut that down to virtually zero to keep the people who are our night shelter clients safe. Our staff and our night shelter clients are managing every cleaning protocol possible, some social distancing, but the only way for us to have a night shelter for a hundred adult men experiencing homelessness is to say no at the door to the day clients. And that is very difficult for our staff right now.

JM: So where are those folks going that normally find help through the ARCH?

AP: Well you're gonna make me cry. The people who have come in for days, weeks, years, to use restrooms and showers, are completely out of luck. Caritas has opened their restroom across the street, but Trinity Center down the street has closed. There is simply no way to maintain safety for our case managed clients and our staff, who are there 24 hours a day, without making these cuts. The city has put out information on which community showers and restrooms are open. We're trying to keep an updated list available, but I think that you can imagine, people are going without showers and they are using whatever spaces they can find for restrooms.

JM: What do you want people to know about how the homeless are handling this situation. I think that a lot of people want to know what they can do to help, you know. We feel very blessed that we have a place to call home, where we can shelter in place, most of us.

AP: Well I think the good news is, and something to keep in mind as a bright spot during dark times, the shelter is open. We are open 24 hours a day. We are maintaining services for a lot of clients. We are, like everybody else, struggling to get some of the supplies we'd like, but I imagine that will level off soon as these stockpilers quit stockpiling.

We have spoken with our clients, and it's kind of funny, they're saying the same things that my mom says, who grew up during World War II. They say, “Well, people are going to learn to make do with less.” It's like, yes, our clients have an advantage on that. They are much better at social distancing and they are pretty good at making do with very little. That said, it is still hard. We've been able to get food for the kitchen. So far that's going well. Our kitchen crew is amazing, and they've got supply lines in place. Staff are showing up. Some of the older ones have tagged out temporarily because of potential risk to their own health, but we have folks that have been working there for 20 years, and we are going to continue to have people at work as long as it is possible.

I get a lot of calls from people who are saying, “I'm off work. I want to volunteer.” It's like, no, we can not possibly allow volunteers in the shelter. The risk is that we would introduce the virus into our client population because a lot of the people who want to volunteer probably travel in slightly more elevated circles and they may know someone who's been traveling or been on a cruise. So zero volunteering, but thank you.

People are asking if they can bring stuff down, and we are following all the guidelines from local government; stay in place please. We have had some folks that have used a company credit card and sent lunch over to our staff, or dinner, because these people are absolute heroes handing out mail, keeping things clean, keeping people comfortable and as calm as possible in a destabilizing time. If anybody would like to send lunch to our skeleton crew as a show of support to boost morale, they can reach out to me via email and I'd be happy to accommodate them, but we are holding our own right now.

JM: Amy I know there's a wonderful network of nonprofits in our community that help the homeless. Have you been in touch with them? And is there more of a coordinated effort around lifting up the homeless during this very difficult time?

AP: There is. There's an extraordinary amount of coordination. There's a daily 9 a.m. call with the partners, there may be as many as 30 nonprofits, plus the city agencies, from APD to Parks to Watershed, everybody who has a stake in this. Happily we've been working together for months now on the issue, so we know each other. We convene frequently. The communications teams meet every Wednesday for two hours and we talk about the messaging. If somebody's created a phenomenal flyer, it's distributed through the group. We're trying to minimize duplication of services and keep updated information out there because as different places change their hours, or change their access to restrooms, it has a huge impact on clients.

JM: Anything else that we haven't touched on that you think is important for people to know about our homeless population, that's been in such a spotlight, for other reasons over the past year, anything else you want the community to know?

AP: I think it's worth knowing that Integral Care has stepped up resources for folks with mental health or substance abuse issues. They've got a hotline that I think can direct people to resources. We have concerns that people who are experiencing homelessness may not be able to get their medications. In fact, we had originally shifted our mail down to Monday, Wednesday, Friday, an hour a day. But there are hundreds of people who use our organization as their mail drop. And that didn't go very well. We realized four days in that there was not enough access to mail for people who were anxious and concerned about disability checks and things like that. So now we have mail twice a day, six days a week. So we're constantly adjusting to try and meet our clients' needs while we maintain some degree of safety protocols.

I think that it's important to remember if you're handing out food at this time, it is true that a lot of the organizations who deliver food to the homeless have suffered losses in volunteers. I think a lot of our volunteer corps in America are older, retired individuals and they are the last people who should be out and about making social contact now because they're high risk. So a lot of the entities took a big hit on their available volunteer groups to deliver food. So I think some of that's recalibrating now, but if you are going to be handing out food, be very mindful to hand out things that are easy to eat if you have dental issues, soft sandwiches. If you're giving out snack bars, don't get the hard crunchy granola bars. Get the ones that are softer like a Fig Newton. Maybe get applesauce or yogurt as opposed to apples. If you're gonna be trying to step up on your own and hand out things, make sure you're mindful of the dietary needs and the dental health of clients.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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