“Life-saving measures”: Sheltering the homeless in a pandemic.

A gloved hand gives a bowl of food to another hand

The battle against homelessness in Michigan has always been one that is measured in small victories. But then came 2020, throwing all attack strategies out the window and effectively redrawing the battlefield for everyone.

Right from the very start, the COVID-19 pandemic presented homeless shelters like New Hope Community Center in Lansing with challenges few had seen before. How do people obey a stay at home order when they do not have a home? And if they come to a communal homeless shelter, how can they be kept socially distanced? And what if they arrive already sick with COVID-19? The task of solving these dilemmas and preventing the spread of an airborne illness in close quarters has fallen to Sharon Dade, Director at New Hope.

“You have to really try to separate people as far apart as possible,” said Dade, noting that winter usually means trying to squeeze as many people as possible into the shelter. The need for distance, however, has meant the shelter’s usual 64-bed capacity had to be reduced by more than half. “It’s the opposite of what we would normally do.”

Shelters are an essential service

New Hope also had to create isolation areas for anyone who might arrive already infected with COVID-19 and set up monitors to help treat patients remotely via Telehealth. Without permanent housing, the shelter and its staff have become an even greater lifeline for many in the community.

“I don’t know that shelter workers are oftentimes thought about when we talk about frontline workers,” said Dade.

“But I tell my staff all the time: ‘You are an essential worker. You are a frontline worker. We don’t get to stop. Doesn’t matter the pandemic. Doesn’t matter the weather. Doesn’t matter what it is. We have people that we have to care for 24-7. And we don’t get to shut the doors or lock the doors or go home and work from our offices when it comes to sheltering people and really trying to preserve their lives. These are life-saving measures.”

Greater need, reduced funding

New Hope now has a medical center right in the building where clients can get tested for COVID-19 on the spot. And anyone who is hungry, will be fed. Normally New Hope serves between 70,000 and 90,000 meals every year, three meals a day, five days a week. But these are not normal times.

New Hope is now serving three meals a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, many of them as take-out meals to maintain physical distancing. Demand has increased, costs have increased, but funding has not. Spreading out for safety, known as ‘decongregating’, means fewer shelter beds, which means less funding.

“So, the additional cost of staffing, the additional cost of the use of our facility, the additional cost of food can be really tremendous,” said Dade.

“In addition to that, some of our grants are per diem grants, which means we really get reimbursed for the number of people that we serve. I call it “heads in beds”. But when we have to decongregate our shelter it means we’re serving less people and we’re not able to take advantage of the grants and contracts that are per diem grants that we would normally have at those same rates. So that has caused a financial hardship that can be tremendous. We don’t ever want to shut our doors, but it is very taxing to continue to serve people in the shelter when our base contracts and grants, we can’t access them.”

Holy Cross Services’ annual fundraiser gala Homeless No More is the most important revenue stream for the shelter every year. But the pandemic has forced the event online, but Dade hopes the generosity of sponsors will continue, especially in a year where their support is more important than ever.

Looming crisis of homelessness

Dade also worries about what challenges are still ahead, with many in the shelter community warning of a looming crisis in housing, eviction, and homelessness in the State. In mid-2020 New Hope was recognized for its work battling homelessness when it was tasked with the responsibility of facilitating the State’s Eviction Diversion Program in Ingham County.

“One of the things that has become extremely apparent in 2020, particularly with COVID-19 and the economic crisis that has happened as a result of COVID-19, is that people are not very stable in their living situations,” explained Dade.

Michigan gave $70,000,000 to community partners state-wide to administer the program that pays money owed to landlords to avoid families and individuals being evicted and driven into homelessness. Staff at New Hope work with clients to stabilize and maintain their housing.

“I know at the beginning of COVID we talked about flattening the curve so that healthcare workers in hospital ICU rooms did not get completely overwhelmed. I think about it in the same way when I think about our emergency shelters,” said Dade.

“The capacity is very limited. And so, helping people maintain their housing is a way to keep them as safe as possible and also not to put that added pressure on the shelter system at large that does not have the capacity to handle it.”

Millions spent avoiding evictions

New Hope Community Center was allocated $2,000,000 to put toward the Eviction Diversion Program, including paying for staffing, case managers, and paying rent owed to landlords. But Dade says there is a lot those funds do not pay for.

“We actually have spent 3.7 million dollars, which means we exhausted our two million and asked for more. And so that says something to one, the volume of need, but also to the coordination that we were able to put together for Ingham county and really just out of the gate start moving forward.”

New Hope Community Center executed the program in addition to continuing its core services: the overnight emergency shelter, a day shelter and a community kitchen. Dade says it is because of those services that people experiencing homelessness have a place to congregate, and once they come to New Hope, staff have the chance to offer them services to address the underlying causes of homelessness.

Please consider supporting the life-changing work at New Hope Community Center by donating to our Homeless No More campaign so that Holy Cross Services can continue the fight against homelessness in Michigan.