COVID-19 is drastically changing the day-to-day lives of people around the globe and right here in central Illinois. That includes individuals experiencing homelessness, who have had the services they rely on for survival altered greatly.
Shelters, pantries, and other services geared toward helping the homeless have made several changes to how they operate to keep people healthy while lending a helping hand.
The Home For All Continuum of Care is an organization that works with the Heart of Illinois United Way to help care for the homeless population by connecting them with housing.
Home for All Executive Director Kate Green said the pandemic has a big impact on the people her group serves.
”I would definitely say that individuals experiencing homelessness have been greatly affected by COVID, whether it is access to resources, restroom, facilities, some of the locations, including food pantries that had to shut their doors or minimize some of their services on that front, but also knowing that a lot of these individuals are highly vulnerable," Green said.
She said the Continuum of the Care team is working alongside the Peoria City/County Health Department to offer alternatives to congregate living situations to people more vulnerable to the virus' worst outcomes due to age or other health factors.
Places like the South Side Mission temporarily stopped taking in new residents in March as the pandemic escalated. As of June first, the shelter is allowing new residents again, but with additional rules.
Pastor Craig Williams, the South Side Mission's executive director, said the shelter conducts temperature checks, sanitizes residents' clothes, and quarantines new intakes in a separate area.
But COVID-19 hasn't just impacted shelter. Food distribution to the homeless is affected, too.
Willa Lucas, Food Pantry Manager at The East Bluff Community Center, said there actually is a food surplus as fewer people visit the pantry.
“What we are seeing are new people that maybe have never had to visit a pantry before that find themselves in a different circumstance now," Lucas said. "That is probably the biggest thing I have noticed is that the people who are coming have maybe their income has been impacted.”
Sophia’s Kitchen kept its doors open to the public. Claire Crome, program director, said while there are fewer volunteers, the agency still provided 200 to 300 bagged meals a day to people in need.
Chris Schaffner, executive director at Jolt Harm Reduction, said there's also issues with distributing personal protective equipment, like masks, to protect this population.
“Homeless folks didn’t know where to go to get a mask, nobody thought to pass out masks to people who are highly vulnerable to contracting it and then spreading it amongst that community," he said. "So we solicited mask donations from the community and we had thousands of masks donated to us and we were able to distribute those on the streets.”
Schaffner said the COVID-19 pandemic also makes it difficult to build relationships with people experiencing homelessness.
“Sometimes people just need a hug. Sometimes people need someone to sit with them and have a conversation with them," Schaffner said. "With social distancing and mask-wearing, it just feels less personal.”
Individuals experiencing homelessness can reach out to local shelters and care centers for more information on how they can access services during this time.
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