The recent outbreak of COVID-19 fueled by the highly contagious delta variant is hitting the local unsheltered homeless community hard.
Advocates and service providers say they are fielding calls and messages every day from homeless people who are sick, have tested positive or have been exposed.
Unfortunately, there’s almost nowhere for these folks to quarantine in Springfield. Currently, there are only four shelter beds set aside for COVID-positive homeless people. That means most of those who become infected are back on the streets and in camps, potentially spreading COVID-19 to other homeless people.
The Springfield-Greene County Health Department and Springfield-Greene County Office of Emergency Management submitted a request Wednesday to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the State Emergency Management Agency for a COVID-19 alternative care site. If approved, the inpatient facility would include shelter space for homeless individuals who are COVID-19 positive.
Mercy’s Director of Community Health and Access Molly Holtmann welcomed the news of that request to the state to fund an alternative care site.
“I know the funds are available,” Holtmann said. “We just need (the state) to release them so that we can use them.”
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Holtmann said recently she’s been getting about three calls a day from hospital staff and case workers who have a COVID-positive homeless person needing some sort of quarantine shelter.
“This is an emergent situation. It truly is,” Holtmann said. “We have got to be able to shelter folks that are positive for COVID. Because when we don’t, it causes such a hardship on the hospitals and all the community partners.”
“It would be one thing if we could keep them, but we don’t have the room. We are full,” Holtmann said. “It is really hard for everybody involved because nobody wants to send a sick person out on the streets. That is why we purposely have medical respites that we work with. This is such an unusual situation because of how contagious it is. It’s very, very heart rending for everyone involved.”
The Gathering Tree, the nonprofit that operates Eden Village I and II, has been providing a few of its empty tiny homes to serve as quarantine shelters since last October.
The Gathering Tree’s Chief Visionary Officer Nate Schlueter explained that when cases dropped earlier this year, he put residents into some of those homes. Right now, he has only two tiny homes set aside as quarantine shelters.
Schlueter said he gets at least two calls a day from service providers and case workers who are hoping one of the quarantine homes will be available. The two homes have been full for a while now, and Schlueter said he’s having to turn people away every day.
“It’s a serious problem,” Schlueter said. “At this point, it’s beyond anyone’s control.”
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Advocate: Recent COVID-19 exposures “really terrifying”
Christie Love is the pastor for the Connecting Grounds, a church that operates an outreach center and volunteer group to help the unsheltered community.
Because of the recent spike in COVID-positive homeless people, Love announced Wednesday night that the Connecting Grounds Outreach Center on Chestnut Expressway would be closed to the public for the next three weeks.
Instead of allowing people inside the building during this time, Connecting Grounds volunteers will load supplies into vehicles and bring them to folks on the streets, at camps and the various hang-out spots.
After learning that a COVID-positive person who Love had managed to get in one of the two quarantine rooms at Victory Mission had left his room on Wednesday and taken a City Utilities bus to the Veterans Coming Home Center (a daytime drop-in center for homeless people), Love made the difficult decision that the Connecting Grounds would stop giving out bus passes for the time being.
She said she hopes this will encourage people to stay put and let the outreach volunteers come to them.
Another person who helped serve a meal at an outreach dinner last week later tested positive for COVID-19.
“They helped serve dinner which means they talked to every single one of the 72 people that went through the line,” Love said. “They had a mask on, thankfully.
“Just the absolute danger right now of the exposures that have already happened in the last couple of days is really terrifying,” she said.
Love said she and her team have received a lot of calls from people who are sick and living in their vehicles. She recently got a call about a woman who is sick and living in her vehicle in Bolivar, where there are even fewer resources for individuals who are homeless.
“It’s just an impossible situation right now, and it’s really scary,” Love said. “They don’t have a place to even be sick, to be sore and achy and have a headache.”
“To be out in the heat and not have access to a place to be, to be ran off if you are trying to seek shade under a tree and you get told you can’t lay there, you have to move,” she continued. “To have to walk miles with your backpack when you are carrying everything you own and you don’t feel good and you’ve got a fever — that’s a terrifying situation.”
“A lot of people in the unsheltered community already have a multiplicity of previous existing health conditions that make them really vulnerable to needing hospitalization and using additional resources from our hospitals, putting additional strain on our hospitals,” Love said. “It’s really critical that we find a way to care for them and quarantine.”
Holtmann, with Mercy, agreed.
“When these folks that are positive go back into that community and they go to the feeding sites and they go to the hangout spots, they are exposing everyone else,” Holtmann said. “In the early days, we were able to make do. I’m not saying there weren’t days when I wasn’t scrambling trying to find a place for someone. But we always found it. And now I think I could scramble for days, and I’m not getting anywhere. And that is just devastating.”
“I tell my caseworkers and the nurses in the (emergency department) to keep calling me because maybe a room will become available,” Holtmann said. “I check for every single patient that they call me about. But the majority of times recently, there have been no place for them.”
What about sheltering in motels?
In the early days of the pandemic, Community Partnership of the Ozarks started the Merciful Nights program, which put the most vulnerable homeless people in motels throughout Springfield.
The program was initially funded by grants from the Mercy Foundation and Community Foundation of the Ozarks.
From Jan. 1 to June 30 of this year, that program was funded as an emergency shelter by using Emergency Solutions Grants-COVID funds through the Missouri Housing Development Commission. Per ESG-CV guidelines, emergency shelters are a 90-day program that includes giving participants access to case management.
According to Community Partnership of the Ozark’s Director of Homeless Services Adam Bodendieck, the Merciful Nights program has sheltered more than 600 households (over 1,300 people) since it started last year.
While people were in motels, CPO’s One Door staff made different supportive services available to help them find permanent housing solutions.
But because of that ESG-CV 90-day limit, many of those individuals’ and households’ time in the motels are running out or have run out, Bodendieck said.
“While that (ESG-CV) was the funding source, we had to play by the rules of that funding source,” he said. “As of right now, we have about 20 households still hoteled, so that’s about 45 people that we are maintaining shelter for.”
But even if CPO comes up with funds from private donors or other sources, Bodendieck said they are having trouble finding motel rooms in general.
“Motels have been harder to come by. They are a very expensive option, and a lot of them are now full,” he said. “When everything was in the thick of the pandemic and people weren’t traveling and there weren’t really a lot of hotel rooms being used, it was a lot easier for us to have access.”
CPO’s Vice President of Affordable Housing and Homeless Prevention Michelle Garand said it’s not just that the hotels are filling up with vacationers again. Many hotels managers aren’t interested in serving as medical respite for people with COVID-19, she said.
“Hotels really are not amendable to having individuals recuperate after release from the hospitals,” Garand said. “We don’t have that option.”
Love, with the Connecting Grounds, is also running into the problem of not being able to find motel rooms for folks.
“We don’t have enough resources to hotel everybody who’s been exposed,” Love said. “But even if I had enough resources … we are having an incredibly hard time right now even finding hotel rooms. Just trying to find spaces to put people safely is incredibly difficult right now. There are really no good options.”
Many are suspicious of vaccine
Love and her team at the Connecting Grounds have been surveying every unsheltered person they come in contact with, asking if they’ve been vaccinated. As of Tuesday, they’d talked to more than 90 homeless people and found that 42 percent had been vaccinated.
There have been several vaccination clinics at the Connecting Grounds and the O’Reilly Center for Hope in the past few months.
Still, many in the unsheltered community do not trust the vaccine.
At a homeless outreach dinner Tuesday night held on a church parking lot, Ronnie Depler said he got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine even though he doesn’t fully trust it.
“They’ve been working on HIV and cancer and still can’t come up with something for that. But this?” Depler said, shaking his head. “That kind of makes me wonder.”
“But I went ahead and got it,” he said. “This new COVID virus (the delta variant) — I don’t know if it works for that.”
Depler said he has two friends who became very ill with COVID-19 and had to be hospitalized. He also said that most of his friends who are homeless refuse to get vaccinated.
Love started requiring masks at the Outreach Center nearly three weeks ago. She said there have been some people who were “really upset and not wanting to put them on again.”
“We just keep trying to use it as opportunities to educate and try to explain to people that this variant is so much more dangerous. It’s so much more transmissible,” Love said. “We’ve had some good conversations. I’ve had several people who previously told me, ‘I’ll never get vaccinated for whatever reason.'”
“We’ve always tried to answer questions,” she said. “I’ve had several people who have come back to me and said, ‘How do I get the vaccine? I’ve seen people getting sick with this. It scares me and I don’t want to get sick with this.'”
The Connecting Grounds is hosting another vaccine clinic 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 20 at the Outreach Center, 3000 W. Chestnut Expressway. Love said they will offer fast food gift cards and vouchers for the Revive 66 Campground as incentives to get vaccinated.
Need help from Connecting Grounds?
The Connecting Grounds Outreach Center will be closed to the public for three weeks.
If you are unsheltered or living in a vehicle and need supplies (such as food, water or bug spray), send a text message with your location to the Connecting Grounds Outreach Team at 417-986-2552. Volunteers will bring the outreach van to your location.
Love said the Outreach Team will never share your location with anyone or any other agency.
“The only people that are going to see that message are myself and our drivers,” Love said in a Facebook live video. “Just like we’ve always done, we guard everyone’s locations with the absolute utmost respect and carefulness out of respect to you.”