A stay-at-home order creates its own set of challenges within a population that has no home.
Rev. Brad Bryan, pastor of Wilkes Boulevard UMC (www.wilkesblvdumc.org), said that homeless people have additional pressures during this time of crisis. Wilkes is home to Turning Point, a drop-in center for the homeless in Columbia.
“A lot of their anxiety is more about the closure of services than the Coronavirus,” Bryan said. “The library, bus station, Turning Point, Loaves and Fishes… all of the places they normally go aren’t open. We’ve always told people at Turning Point that no matter what happens with other places, we will always be the place you can go, but because of this unprecedented event that is no longer the case.”
Bryan is considered “non-essential” during a time of home confinement in Columbia, so he’s not present there daily. He’s proud of how well Turing Point Director Darren Morton and his staff have taken care of things, but he feels guilty about not being physically present for people. As things started unfolding mid-March Moton stayed on top of government regulations as they came down, and rapidly changed.
“When it first came out that people shouldn’t gather in groups more than 50 we started watching our numbers,” said Morton. The ministry is currently serving about 65 people, providing drop-in center services like a place to get mail, take a shower and do laundry. “At that time we were making sure we had hand sanitizer inside the door and we’re being careful about wiping down all surfaces like handrails.”
When the limit dropped to 25 they put a hand washing station outside the door and started taking people’s temperature before they came in, and moved the location of some of the services provided to increase distancing. A limit of 100.4 on temperature was set on entry, but as of March 25, no one had shown a fever. That continued when the limit dropped to 10, which is really seven due to the presence of Morton and volunteer staff.
Some school teachers brought donations of hand sanitizer that they will no longer need in their now-closed classrooms.
“We’ve been blessed,” Morton said.
Morton has also been personally involved in helping clients with social distancing.
“I’ve been giving people rides to where they need to go so they don’t end up wandering around town too much or just hanging out somewhere,” he said.
Another ministry at Wilkes Boulevard UMC is Loaves and Fishes. Every evening various churches and community organizations around Columbia use the kitchen and dining hall at Wilkes Boulevard to provide a free meal. That ministry has continued, but the meals are now “carry-out”, handed out the basement door of the church.
For many of the clients at Turning Point, COVID-19 has not risen to the level of being their biggest concern.
“People are still sleeping in the woods and waking up in the rain,” Morton said. “They need tents, tarps and sleeping bags. The Coronavirus didn’t change that.”
A small emergency shelter has been established by the city of Columbia called “Welcome Inn.” It provides 15 motel rooms (two persons per room) for people who are without shelter.
“That’s about half of our unsheltered need here in Columbia,” Bryan said. Although short of the need, Bryan is impressed with how quickly it came together. “People made that happen within 72 hours.”
Safe to Sleep is a shelter for women in Springfield operated by the Council of Churches of the Ozarks that uses the building of Pathways United Methodist Church for its shelter. Safe to Sleep has closed to new enrollment but continues to try to provide shelter to the women it was already serving.
“The screening process for new enrollment places the guest and service provider at risk of transmission of COVID-19,” stated a public announcement from the organization. “New enrollment has been suspended because a compromised screening process would place current guests and volunteers at risk.”
The shelter remained open for the nearly 30 guests who were using the service up until March 25. At that point they had to start limiting the number of people at the church to 10. Some of the most vulnerable women, such as elderly, pregnant or with health problems, have been placed in hotels. The rest have “self-resolved.”
“For some that might mean staying with friends in an abandoned house,” said Safe to Sleep Director Kelly Harris. “It has been gut-wrenching. In nine and half years we’ve never had to turn people away. This has been heart-breaking for our volunteers.”
As for the volunteers, most of the people on the Safe to Sleep volunteer roster are in the high-risk category because of their age and they can no longer volunteer. That has taken the roster of 100 volunteers down to about 20. People in the Springfield area who are not high risk and are willing to volunteer as an overnight attendant for Safe to Sleep are encouraged to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“This has been a rough go for every provider of homeless services,” Harris said. “It’s a stressful time for everyone, but we can at least go home and cry ourselves to sleep with our head on a pillow in a bed every night. For about 300 people in our community, they don’t have that privilege.”