In New York City, It’s hard to imagine a more challenging time to be homeless. But for a number of NYC nonprofits, COVID-19 only highlights Christ’s call to radical hospitality.
With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. – Thomas Merton
In New York City, the COVID-19 pandemic began amidst an already raging homelessness crisis. Millions of New Yorkers already lived on the razor’s edge, one personal crisis away from homelessness, with one in five New Yorkers paying more than half their income in rent. Now, because of the pandemic, an estimated one in seven New Yorkers have lost their jobs, while others face looming eviction with moratoriums slated to end January 1.
As temperatures lower and restrictions increase, unhoused New Yorkers face a series of harrowing decisions. Which is worse: life-threatening exposure to the elements, or a congregate setting where you could get sick? Spending the night on a subway platform, or in a lonely hotel room, disconnected from everyone and everything you know?
The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many of us to spend the holidays away from our loved ones this year, but for those without housing, the ongoing experience of isolation is even more acute.
Recently, one visitor to New York City’s The Bowery Mission was asked: “What do you expect to change in your life as a result of the coronavirus?” He responded, “Nothing. When you’re homeless, people already avoid you like you have a virus.”
COVID-19 has made many of us feel disconnected, restless, and uncertain. But in this time when we have all been instructed to “stay home” and “stock up,” how do we serve our neighbors who are without a home or support?
Keeping the doors open
In New York City, restrictions left the homeless community in shock. Suddenly, those who had formerly relied on public restrooms for basic hygiene needs were left with no options. Food pantries and soup kitchens saw their lines double, with agencies scrambling to meet growing demand.
“At its peak in April, it was all hands on deck just to keep our doors open,” says James Winans, President and CEO of The Bowery Mission.
Through it all, the nonprofit never missed one day of service. But where meals were once served indoors in a community dining hall, they are now served to-go, out the front door, in a style harkening back to the organization’s once-famous breadline.
Witnessing the increased hygiene needs among those on their meal line, The Bowery Mission introduced hand-washing stations and public toilets. They launched a new mobile shower program, provided in partnership with Showers of Blessings, an outreach ministry of Adventist Community Services.
But now, with COVID-19 cases again on the rise again, the pressure is on. The Bowery Mission, which also operates a congregate overnight shelter and multiple residential settings, must maintain the highest standards in cleaning, safety, and social distancing – just to stay open.
The organization’s COVID-19 task force is charged with responding quickly to the latest guidelines. Working in close partnership with the city and Department of Health, they ensure a coordinated, timely COVID-19 response across all campuses.
“We believe organizations like ours have a duty to remain open at all costs,” says Winans. “Homelessness itself is an emergency, and now unhoused New Yorkers are in even deeper crisis.”
Taking it to the streets
Yet while some agencies are holding firm as community anchors, others are finding ways to deliver resources right where people are.
The Salvation Army has expanded its presence in the community through mobile social service units, fully equipped vans that distribute PPE, hygiene kits, and referrals to those New Yorkers living on the streets.
The historic institution works in close partnership with the Relief Bus, a ministry of faith-based New York City Relief. Shortly after the virus took hold in the city, the Relief Bus pivoted from its typical homeless outreach model to handing out to-go meals, hygiene kits (totalling 27,000), masks (totalling 40,000), and hand sanitizer.
The organization typically provides one-on-one consultations to New Yorkers – right on the street – and places a high value on the connection that comes only through face-to-face interaction.
To maintain that connection, without indirectly contributing to spread, the organization has partnered with an engineering firm to roll out a brand new “life care booth,” which keeps outreach workers in full view behind glass paneling.
“They can actually take off their mask to show their emotions,” says Juan Galloway, President & CEO of New York City Relief. “People have responded with such enthusiasm. We’re actually seeing people line up down the street.”
Other strategies involve harnessing phone and internet connection to create access to care.
The Salvation Army has developed a COVID-19 hotline that people can call or text for information and referrals, even emotional or spiritual care. New Yorkers can call this hotline to request a food delivery right where they are.
Another initiative, piloted this summer by New York City Relief in partnership with T-Mobile, involves distributing cell phones to neighbors on the street. These simple, unassuming flip phones allow people to keep in touch with their doctor, check in with their family, or contact employment in a time when most people are only accessible by phone.
“People are saying, ‘It’s a miracle,’” says Brett Hartford, New York City Relief’s Director of Outreach. “From the records, we’re seeing calls made to mental health services, to caseworkers, to employment agencies and help lines. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.”
The Bowery Mission, a nearly 150 year old organization, says COVID-19 has forced them to adopt new technology sooner than they would have otherwise, with great success. Residential clients have received tablets, allowing them to connect easily to ongoing telehealth and mental health services.
Staff say the tablets have not only been practically helpful in terms of keeping up with appointments, but they’ve helped improve the care experience.
“We’ve found that it’s actually more trauma-informed,” says Asa Scott, Associate Director of Clinical Services at The Bowery Mission. “They’re not walking into a stranger’s office or having a stranger walk into their space. It actually meets a need for a feeling of safety.”
Keeping hope alive
Amidst the urgency to meet new material needs, agencies warn not to forget the emotional, psychological and spiritual impact of the pandemic.
“It’s one of the most important times for reminding people how deeply loved they are and how we’re here for them,” says Winans. “It’s the time where we need to lean in to being a surrogate family, a surrogate home, for so many people. A place of connection and celebration and light and warmth.”
For most of us, the Christmas season is about home and family. But for those living on the streets, it’s just a season like any other – or worse, a reminder of all they’ve lost. And with a second wave underway in New York City, the experience of fear and isolation is more acute than ever.
“Now not only are people not looking at people who are homeless, they’re not looking at each other,” says Tara Charnow, a former client at The Bowery Mission, who now volunteers at the organization’s meal program. “You’re just, ‘I’ve got to go from here to here. Nobody touch me. Nobody cough near me. Nobody come near me.’”
In an increasingly hostile time, agencies agree that one of the most important things is to keep spirits up. All the material relief in the world can’t make up for loss of hope.
“Our goal is not to dole out charity, but to do life together,” says Galloway. “It’s a lot harder right now, but we’re finding ways.”
“It’s difficult to smile through the mask when I volunteer, but I always do,” says Charnow. “The big thing for me is the connection, because I might be the only person who smiles at them all day.”