Chris Williams, homeless

Chris Williams, who has been homeless for most of the last 15 years, sits on a ledge at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument downtown in December 2019. (Photo/Tyler Fenwick)

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.”

Learn more about how to donate on the Horizon House website.

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.

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