How the nation’s homeless ministries are responding in the pandemic

Did I wash my hands? Am I too close to the person in front of me? What if I run out of food? Who will care for my children if I get sick?

While most of us are adjusting to daily thoughts like this for the first time, these questions have been everyday concerns for those experiencing homelessness for quite some time. With COVID-19 relegating the majority of the world to the confines of home, the plight of those who have no place to shelter has come sharply into focus.

In this new reality, charities serving the homeless across the U.S. say that Americans are connecting to their clients more than ever before. And even though they are facing unprecedented need, they are not without hope, as givers, communities, and the homeless themselves respond with resourcefulness, innovation, and an outpouring of uncommon generosity.

Even though they’re facing unprecedented need, charities aren’t without hope. Givers, communities, and the homeless themselves are responding with resourcefulness, innovation, and … uncommon generosity.

On a recent brisk morning in Seattle, one of the early hot spots for COVID-19, several men in the recovery program at Seattle Union Gospel Mission were sanitizing the sidewalks out front as the owner of a local restaurant dropped off donuts for the residents and staff. “We’re no longer open to the public,” the restaurateur explained, “but we wanted to use our kitchen to do something good.”

Like most shelters and homeless ministries, Seattle Union Gospel Mission is facing a perfect storm of COVID-related crises with a growing number of highly vulnerable clients, shrinking resources and supplies, and a dwindling staff and volunteer base who are high-risk themselves.

President Scott Chin describes it this way: “It’s really intense trying to implement new protocols for keeping our residents safe by locking down our shelters, moving beds farther apart, stepping up hygiene, and finding new ways to provide food and supplies through our outreach teams while following challenging social distancing guidelines. We’re short-handed, as we rely on many volunteers who are under government requirement to stay at home, and some of our staff are out, too.”

“But our clients here are pulling together, and nobody’s complaining,” Chin says.

At the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., New York City’s Bowery Mission has quickly pivoted to meet the most urgent needs – food, showers, shelter – in new ways. “Our long-term goals of getting people into programs and off the streets have shifted to the immediate need of how do we simply help our guests stay fed, clean, and alive,” Interim CEO James Winans says.

The way they deliver services had to change overnight as well, from gathering clients in groups for shared meals to receiving food to offering take-away food and individual portions of soup.

“Social distancing means day-center services, after-school programs, mentoring programs, and summer-camp activities are all cancelled. As a result, we expect more mental health challenges and more trauma for men, women, and children who are already suffering,” Winans says.

The line outside The Bowery Mission in New York looks a little different these days – six feet apart, and it’s not just the homeless asking for food.

The line outside The Bowery Mission in New York looks a little different these days – six feet apart, and it’s not just the homeless asking for food.

Still, The Bowery Mission continues to provide shelter and housing for nearly 325 people every night, serves hundreds of meals to new guests every day, and has reinstated their showering program, which is a feat in itself considering the lengths they must go to for proper sanitation now.

In the heart of the South, nonprofit leaders and city officials have been moving swiftly to address homelessness issues in metro Atlanta. As homeless individuals flooded Hartsfield-Jackson airport, one of the few public spaces with restrooms still open, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms responded with an executive order to spend an additional $1.5 million to test, transport, isolate and shelter homeless people infected with the coronavirus. The mayor said the money would match a private philanthropic donation to shelter homeless people who have contracted the virus.

South of the airport, Terence Lester’s charity, Love Beyond Walls, has quickly innovated to come up with a solution to one of the most pressing issues for homeless people during this crisis – the ability to wash their hands. “We kept hearing over and over again, wash your hands,” Terence says, “but we knew our clients don’t have access to running water or hand sanitizer and it would be impossible for them to keep their hands clean. So, we racked our brains for eight days and we came up with a solution.”

Love Beyond Walls found an affordable portable handwashing station that could be funded for only $100. To date, the charity has installed hundreds of handwashing stations throughout metro Atlanta and has expanded into Austin, Birmingham, and other cities. (Listen to this recent episode of HopeCast to hear Terence explain more about the “Love Sinks In” national handwashing campaign.)

At Atlanta Mission, one of the city’s largest homeless ministries, dedicated staff continue to serve more than 600 individuals who are currently living in their shelters. President Jim Reese explains, “Like first responders, our staff run into the fire and not away. And it’s also unbelievable how our clients are working together to clean their home and support each other. If you are struggling at home with kids and other issues, can you imagine sharing your space with about 250 people and trying to keep it clean and sanitary?”

Despite a decreased number of volunteers, Atlanta Mission still manages to deep clean multiple campuses throughout the day, perform health screenings on all their clients multiple times a day, and transport symptomatic clients to medical facilities for testing.

“The importance of generosity cannot be underestimated,” Reese adds. “We stand ready in the midst of this storm because donors have stood beside us for years and years. And the outpouring from the community has been amazing.”

“Pray that the Lord would turn their hearts from hopelessness to hope.”

Reese says Atlanta Mission posts an urgent needs list online, and “the Amazon packages come flooding in.” Donors are buying meals from shuttered local restaurants and providing breakfasts and lunches for all the clients and staff, which help the restaurants owners, their employees, and the mission.

Like almost all charity leaders on the frontlines of this crisis, Reese says he is keenly aware of the rapidly expanding needs of those experiencing homelessness now and the vulnerable yet to come. But he encourages everyone who cares about the least of these with this perspective of hope: “There’s no question in my mind that prayer is our ultimate weapon. Pray for strength and protection for our staff and clients, but above all, pray for people to come to know Christ. People on the street who have given up and won’t come for help, they are coming in! Pray that the Lord would turn their hearts from hopelessness to hope.”

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