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Coronavirus could be devastating for homeless population

As businesses close and people try to isolate themselves as much as possible to slow the spread of COVID-19, one segment of the population — so used to being ignored — may end up getting hit harder than most in this pandemic.

People experiencing homelessness often don't have the means to take basic hygiene steps recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Education about symptoms of the new coronavirus is more difficult to get across, and for those who do develop signs, getting adequate medical help could be out of the question.

And then there are the shelters, trying to fulfill their obligation to protect some of society's most vulnerable while keeping everyone safe from a spreading virus.

William Bumphus, director of the Wheeler Mission men's shelter, said his staff has been meeting about what to do if Marion County faces a significant spike in cases or if someone in the shelter tests positive for COVID-19.

But practicing social distancing is almost out of the question.

"It's not possible," Bumphus said, "especially right now, given the numbers. We can't do social distancing right now."

Local shelters are nearing the end of the winter contingency plan, when some rules and restrictions are relaxed in order to get people off of the streets during the coldest months of the year, but Bumphus said numbers in the shelter haven't gone down yet.

It's less crowded during the day, he said, but nights are still nearing or reaching capacity.

Staff are making sure those who use the shelter understand basic hygiene measures that health experts have been emphasizing.

Bumphus said the shelter is in need of hand sanitizer and soap. Wheeler has various drop-off locations for donations listed on its website.

Rick Alvis, Wheeler Mission's president and CEO, said in a press release the organization is increasing frequency and "rigor" of cleaning, putting multiple hand sanitizer stations at the men's emergency shelter, displaying a recurring video from the CDC about how to prevent spread, and preparing to possibly seclude guests who display symptoms.

"Unlike some businesses and organizations, we cannot shut down and send people home," Alvis said. "Wheeler Mission is their home, so we have to do everything in our power to keep our guests safe and provide clean and safe facilities."

Shelters are in a position where they desperately need volunteers and donations, but those resources are more difficult to come by as many people have started avoiding crowds and are worried about job stability.

In a letter to supporters, Horizon House Executive Director Teresa Wessel said the organization is following best practices from other groups that serve the homeless population to protect those who need help while still providing services.

Wessel said volunteer services have been suspended.

"You are surely feeling the added pressures at this time as your family and employment are experiencing major disruptions," she said in the letter. "I empathize with you and yet, sincerely ask that you give in order to help Horizon House serve those that we must continue to serve."

Family Promise of Greater Indianapolis usually relies on a network of churches and other houses of worship, but many are closing in the wake of COVID-19.

Michael Chapuran, the executive director, said the organization has started paying for families to stay in hotel rooms. The plan is to continue doing that until April 19, but there is enough funding to go until the first week of May if necessary.

If the coronavirus pandemic continues beyond then, though, Chapuran said the organization will have to rely on another round of funding to continue getting families into shelter.

As for how those families who need shelter are reacting to concerns about COVID-19, Chapuran said it's about the same as the general public.

"Some think it's media, and some have dug into it and think it's a serious concern," he said.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.


To learn more about how to help local homeless shelters or to donate, visit:




Working class hit hard amid coronavirus closures

For the past six days, Kierra Santillan was off of work with a sinus infection. While a cough is the only symptom she shares with symptoms of COVID-19, or coronavirus, she was sent home from her job as a bank teller out of fear her symptoms would make patrons uncomfortable. Now, she's starting to feel the effects financially.

"I went to an immediate care the last time I was sent home, and they told me that even though I don't have symptoms of coronavirus, I should go into a two-week quarantine," Santillan said.

Santillan, 23, has two weeks of paid time off through her job, so all of her paid leave will be used by April following isolation. While her place of employment offered her time off if she needs it later in the year, it will be unpaid leave.

Beyond using her paid time off, Santillan also fears her hours will be cut after the bank switches to drive-through only.

"I'm an hourly employee, so if they start doing these cuts, they're going to pay me based off of the days I work. So I'll be paid like a part-time employee. Anyone in the service industry is getting the s**t-end of the stick right now."

In recent weeks, COVID-19 has impacted nearly every facet of American life. Businesses have shut down temporarily, schools have switched to e-learning, and many events have been canceled to avoid large gatherings. While it's nearly impossible to predict the long-term outcomes of this, one thing is certain: The effects of COVID-19 will immediately impact the working class.

Erin Macey, senior policy analyst for Indiana Institute for Working Fami-

lies, sees the current pandemic as an opportunity for a conversation about paid leave.

"It's understandable why these workers would go to work sick," Macey said. "We are working really hard right now to draw attention to the lack of paid leave available to workers in this moment, particularly as other states are enacting policies on this issue. ... [COVID-19] leaves low-wage workers in Indiana with really difficult decisions to make."

Hoosier workers whose place of employment has not shut down to address the threat of coronavirus may qualify for protection under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

This law protects paid leave in the event an employee has to take time off for a personal medical emergency or to care for a sick relative. However, there are several requirements to qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act, including working in a company with more than 50 employees and having worked a full year with the company.

While some businesses are cutting their hours, in some cases, the number of employees is being cut. This is Santillan's biggest fear.

"Because I've been out sick, I'm worried they're going to make the schedule without me being there, and I'll have a zero-hour work week while still being a name on their payroll," Santillan said. "I wouldn't be able to get unemployment. I don't know what my options are at this point, I'm sitting on my hands waiting for someone to give me a direct answer about what hours or jobs will be available."

On March 16, in an attempt to help families keep their homes during the pandemic, Marion County Circuit Court Judge Sheryl Lynch ordered Small Claims Courts to remain open through the end of the month to hear non-emergency eviction cases.

Several cities throughout the country, including Miami and Baltimore, have ordered eviction freezes in the wake of the pandemic.

While many workers face economic insecurity due to COVID-19, several companies throughout Indianapolis continue to pay their employees full salary despite being temporarily shut down or working reduced hours. The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, for example, has closed to the public for two weeks while offering paid leave to staff, according to Leighann Strollo, manager of Sports Legends facility at the museum.

Fred Douse, who works in health insurance and as a speech coach at Ben Davis High School, sees this trend from companies as a reflection of what it means to be American. Douse has already seen some professional changes due to COVID-19 — the high school speech season was cut short statewide for the safety of students.

"What this shows is definitely a different climate," Douse said. "We've spent the last three years with a lot of hostility and division, but as usual, Americans came together when a crisis hit. We're not looking at people as just their ethnicity, their political party or their sexual orientation. We're looking at people as people, and looking at how this is affecting someone's life. People care about people again. We haven't had this kind of thing, I would say, since 9/11."

Douse thinks the pandemic will kickstart a national conversation about health care.

"I think this is really going to make the country look at how we handle these kinds of crises, and what kind of safety net the government provides," he said. "In terms of insurance, you get someone treatment for the disease, stabilize them, that's a one-time hit in terms of cost. But when you start hitting the service industry, that's a huge economic impact."

It is difficult to predict the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the economy, because this — closing down bars and restaurants statewide and other businesses changing their hours — is unprecedented.

"I think the financial consequences of this will depend in part to our policy response," Macey said. "The most vulnerable will be working class individuals. ... I would hope this could be a moment of reckoning where we realize we have to set ourselves up as a society that takes care of its workers."

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

Coronavirus upends the education system

Hundreds of thousands of K-12 and college students around the country have had their academic worlds upended by the new coronavirus.

Indianapolis Public Schools, along with the 10 other school districts in Marion County, are closed until at least April 5, putting an especially burdensome strain on low-income families who will struggle to find food and child care.

College students are wrestling with constant change, as universities try to react quickly to the latest developments with COVID-19.


Shani Warren has it better than many parents whose children are now out of school for at least a few weeks. She's able to work from home, and so is her husband.

They have a son who's in sixth grade at Hoosier Academy, a K-8 public charter school in Lawrence Township, but they're also now taking care of a nephew whose mother still has to go to work.

"Our balance is a little askew at this point," said Warren, who owns her own business and works part time as a recruiter for a learning company. "Now we're having to

One of the most significant problems with closing schools for an extended period of time is that many students rely on schools to provide meals and a safe environment.

School district employees, along with volunteers and food banks, are working to fill the gap until students can return to school.

Mark King, who works in the food service department for Indianapolis Public Schools, is part of a team handing out pre-packaged breakfast and lunch meals at seven schools during the closure.

"Their opportunities to get a meal have been diminished," he said at Arlington Woods School 99 on the east side.

Some closing school districts serve mostly affluent students who won't be as negatively impacted by abrupt changes. They're more likely to have a reliable source of food and parents who can work from home.

"I don't think a lot of people think about it," King said of students who rely on schools for more than an education, "but also a lot of people don't really know about it."

About two-thirds of IPS students are economically disadvantaged, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education, and more than 80% qualify for free or reduced lunch.

IPS will hand out meals 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday until April 3. A food bus will also take meals to Blackburn Terrace apartments and Laurelwood Apartments. Visit myips.org to learn more.

In Wayne Township, bus drivers and child nutrition staff will deliver meals 10 a.m. to noon at more than 1,000 stops. Meals will also be available at various schools during the same time. Visit district. wayne.k12.in.us to learn more.

Students in Warren Township can get free lunches 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Warren Central High School. Visit warren.k12.in.us to learn more.

Lawrence Township schools will give out a fiveday supply of breakfasts and lunches 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 23 at various schools and community sites. Visit ltschools.org to learn more.

Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a 20-day waiver exempting the required 180 days in a school year, so districts are able to take necessary action without fear of drastically expanding the school year.


Butler University and Indiana University campuses are closing residential housing for the semester as students transition to online classes. Butler also canceled all in-person events, including the mencement ceremony.

Before closing campus housing, Butler's residential housing was supposed to stay closed until at least April 4, and students with "extenuating circumstances" could request to stay on campus. As of March 17, a university spokesperson said it isn't clear if that's still the case.

Chinyelu Mwaafrika, a freshman at Butler, lived on campus but said he's moving back in with is parents, who live in Indianapolis.

"I don't want to exaggerate it, but it definitely feels like this is the worst time it could have happened," he said.

Mwaafrika is a theater major, so most of his classes don't have much use online. He was rehearsing for a play and other end-of-the-year projects.

"I don't know what's gonna happen now," he said. "I don't know what comes next in terms of me and my education."

Michaela Ivory, a junior at Butler, said there are concerns that extend beyond students having a place to live other than on campus.

"How are they going to get access to reliable internet? Some students may have devices that are capable of handling virtual learning, but maybe they don't have that extra resource of Wi-Fi or internet," she said.

Ivory, who was interviewed before Butler announced its on-campus housing will close for a time, also noted it won't be as simple as going to a Starbucks or McDonald's to get Wi-Fi as businesses close their doors temporarily.

It's important to note colleges and universities are changing their policies on an ongoing basis, so the information here may not be the most accurate by the time you read it.

Indiana University will close its residential housing for the rest of the semester, a decision that extends to IUPUI.

IUPUI wants students who live on campus and have already left for an extended spring break (March 16-29) to stay home. Students who are still on campus are supposed to make arrangements to leave by March 20.

For students who don't have a permanent home outside of campus housing or can't return to their permanent home, there is an online petition they can fill out to request to stay.

Marian University is closing its campus and shifting to online classes as students are recommended to return to their permanent homes.

The University of Indianapolis extended its spring break to March 22, and faculty have been instructed to move coursework online.

Martin University is closed for spring break until March 23, and then classes will move online until March 27.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

COVID-19: virtual town hall

The Indianapolis Recorder, in partnership with Next Generation Initiative, will host a virtual town hall on Facebook Live (facebook.com/IndyRecorder) at 2 p.m. March 19 to discuss the unique impact the corona coronavirus pandemic will have on the African American community.

Panelists include Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department; Vop Osili, president of the Indianapolis City-County Council; Aleesia Johnson, superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools; Fred Payne, commissioner of Department of Workforce Development; and Ann Murtlow, CEO of United Way of Central Indiana.

Issues discussed will include health, education, child care and jobs, as well as how to avoid contracting the virus, where to get tested and what resources are available.

Community members are encouraged to submit questions to editor Oseye Boyd at oseyeb@indyrecorder.