• Erica Smith

Social distancing while homeless: why shelters need your help

Helping Hands of Springfield has implemented protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among our clients, and in solidarity with our entire community to “flatten the curve.” We’re getting two good questions from a lot of people: “Why is Helping Hands implementing these restrictions?” and “How can the community help people who are homeless at this time?”

Why people who are homeless are “high-risk” for COVID-19

Homelessness is an individual, and public, health issue. HOUSING IS HEALTH CARE, every day of the year and especially in situations like the one we’re all in now.

Whether it’s the seasonal flu, chronic disease, or Coronavirus, people experiencing homelessness are a high-risk group for both health and social reasons. They cannot isolate themselves and they may not have access to the same level of sanitized environments that housed people do.

And it’s deeper than that.

People who are homeless live in crisis, which means the “fight or flight” response is constantly activated in their brain and body. This prolonged toxic stress wears on their immune system, making them less likely to be able to fight off infection. Pile on top of that poor diet, inadequate sleep, lack of access to primary health care, and unmanaged chronic health conditions, you can see how it’s hard to be healthy when you don’t have housing. And it’s especially hard when there is a virus going around for which humans do not have immunity, a vaccine, or a cure.

So that’s why we’re asking the public to stay out of our building for the next few weeks. Just as people in other group settings, such as nursing homes and elementary schools, may have reasons that they need extra protection from infection, so do people experiencing homelessness.

“Social Distancing” and “Self-Quarantining” in shelter settings

It’s a little ironic – we commonly talk about how people experiencing homelessness are on the fringes of society, and now that we are all called to practice “social distancing” we find it simply isn’t feasible for people in emergency shelters.

People who live in shelters cannot completely practice either “social distancing” or “self-quarantine” for any illness. They sleep in a room with 50 other people, and almost every aspect of their lives happens in group settings or public places. They use showers, bathrooms, bunkrooms, and dining areas that are shared by many people each day. When they are sick, or even just need some peace and quiet, there is no private place for them to rest.

The physical, mental, and emotional stress of constant noise, chaos, and the experience of homelessness is unsettling in everyday life, and our clients are even more anxious than usual right now. They don’t want to get sick and more importantly they don’t want to spread illness. But they cannot isolate themselves the same way as housed people can.

So how Helping Hands responds as a shelter to COVID-19 must mirror how other families are responding; as a unified group, caring and committed to the safety of all.

At this time, our Emergency Shelter is acting as anyone else’s home is – as our refuge. Our staff and clients are treating each other as family members would. We are protecting each other by staying in as much as possible, and when we have to go out we are careful about our social exposure. It’s a challenge, but we are committed to sticking together and staying safe.

What you can do to help

Right now, there are three steps you can take to help us as we get through the next two weeks and beyond:

1. Donate money. Helping Hands is staying open extra -- which means we are opening a part of our building for clients that is usually not open during the day. With facilities, staffing, and food/supplies, our average additional cost total is about $50 an hour. At this point, we're keeping our cafe area open an additional eight hours a day and adding lunch for anyone who needs it (approximately 40-50 people). Therefore, Helping Hands is spending at least $400 each day in extra costs. If all goes well, we hope to be able to resume normal hours by April 1. This means COVID-19 will have cost Helping Hands an additional $6,400 to implement additional safety measures.

2. Contribute food and supplies. You can help off-set financial costs by providing food and items from our wish list (which is also available on Amazon.com). If you are dropping items off, pull up to the double-doors at 1023 E. Washington Street and call 217-522-0048. We will come out to your car and bring in the donations. You also can receive a tax letter for the value of your contributions.

3. Advocate for real solutions to homelessness in Sangamon County. Tell anyone who will listen – and even those who won’t – that COVID-19 is yet another reason why we must house people who are homeless; not warehouse them in shelters. Insist that Springfield (and Sangamon County) develop a coordinated approach to homelessness that focuses on access to housing and health care. What we need to do to address homelessness isn’t a mystery. The question is: do we have the courage to make it happen?

People who live in homelessness live in crisis every day. Let’s commit together to take care of all our citizens during the threat of COVID-19. And, when this collective crisis is over, we must then take real steps to prevent and resolve the crisis of homelessness for the health and wellbeing of us all.

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