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COVID-19 and the Quiet Impact on Homelessness

Many of our lives have drastically changed since March when COVID-19 swept the nation. Schools, businesses and our communities were all impacted and changed what our day-to-day life looks. While quarantining at home and keeping business afloat, there was a collection of voices that were forgotten during the pandemic – the homeless community.

When the first, most effective protective measure put into place is a requirement to stay at home, the homeless population is clearly already at a disadvantage for prevention. Contrary to popular belief, many homeless people have jobs, and many of those jobs were discontinued during the “safer at home” regulations. This leaves an already vulnerable population in even greater need.

With minimal guidance and support from federal and state governments, homeless organizations like Room at the Inn and Nashville Rescue Mission are left to continue to operate independently and navigate how to best provide for their guests. 

Organizations like these and their operations were greatly affected from the sweeping changes in sanitation standards. Shelters also are required to screen guests for symptoms. Unfortunately with a COVID-19 diagnosis, many of the homeless were forced to be isolated from the only community they have, sent to a temporary shelter for people who tested positive. Sometimes their only option is a tent. With limited knowledge of the disease — even on a national level — combined with mental health struggles, existing traumas and few resources, a positive diagnosis was devastating.

There is a fear in their eyes that is practically unbearable when delivering the news. The homeless community already lacks sufficient access to healthcare and living in a highly stressful environment takes its toll on recovering from a respiratory illness like COVID-19. Homeless shelters continue to collect resources and create space between their guests, unfortunately this leads to a reduction in the shelter’s capacity.

This leaves a high amount of uncertainty in their lives, but they know they can count on one thing always – the person that is next to them.

“Home is not a building,” says Rachel Hester, executive director at Room in the Inn. She explains that the homeless community is highly supportive of one another and that they have had no resistance to the mask requirement. “The person next to you could be the last person who gave you a blanket. These people are family.” 

For many of our homeless friends, the services provided by organizations like Room in the Inn and Nashville Rescue Mission provide more than just shelter; they provide community. When services like the day center and overnight accommodations are limited, it not only impacts their physical wellbeing but their mental health as well. Social connection is important, especially when much of your life is spent being avoided by the general population and rejected by family members.

While resources are stretched thin, homeless organizations are pivoting their services to continue to support the homeless population in any way possible. One of the best ways to help is by using your voice to advocate for them. The homeless are typically ignored on a personal and a systemic level, so in addition to donating or volunteering when possible, leading by example in your everyday life is critical. Asking a homeless person his or her name goes a long way in encouraging them and affirming their dignity, and speaking up in conversations with friends and family makes a difference. 

Many of us are hopeful that the worst of the pandemic may be over in the coming months with the promise of a vaccine, but Hester says that is likely untrue for our homeless population. The homeless population is typically the last to be educated, the last to know how to protect themselves and will be the last to get the vaccine. 

“The end may not be close for us,” she says. “Don’t forget they exist.” 

Hear Glenn’s full conversation with Room in the Inn’s Rachel Hester and Melanie Barnett on COVID-19’s impact within the homeless community in episode 1 of Real Hope.

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