In Midst of Pandemic, Service Providers to the Homeless See a Challenging Winter Ahead

Limits on shelter capacity, increases in the number of unsheltered, and isolation during dreary winter weather identified as key concerns.

Various Catholic organizations are reaching out to needy populations across the country amid the pandemic.
Various Catholic organizations are reaching out to needy populations across the country amid the pandemic. (photo: Unsplash)

The staff at Pine Street Inn have long been proud of a simple promise: No one seeking shelter from a cold Boston winter night would ever be turned away. It might involve a bit of creativity — putting sleeping mats on the lobby floor, sometimes only inches apart — but staff would find a way to make things work.

But this winter, Boston’s largest provider of services to the homeless might not be able to make that guarantee. 

To comply with COVID-19- related social-distancing requirements, capacity at the Pine Street Inn’s four shelters has been reduced to about 60%, meaning the provider might not be able to accommodate everyone who comes to their doors to escape the cold.

“I get it, I understand, but personally, I’m struggling with that,” said Barbara Trevisan, Pine Street Inn’s vice president of marketing and communications, noting they may have to make a hard choice between sheltering someone and mitigating spread of the virus if push comes to shove. Local officials have scrambled to provide alternative housing, but it remains to be seen whether everyone seeking shelter from the cold will be accommodated.

The challenge in Boston is just one example of the complications facing those who provide shelter to the homeless, a corporal work of mercy, as temperatures drop while COVID numbers rise across the country.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the average nightly temperature in January is 8 degrees Fahrenheit, local officials have taken preemptive measures to address COVID-related reductions in shelter capacity, including the permanent acquisition of hotels in the Twin Cities that have closed during the pandemic. In fact, Tracy Berglund, director of housing and emergency services at Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said that while her organization’s housing capacity is down — for instance, from 365 spaces to about 180 at the Dorothy Day Place in St. Paul — she believes that overall capacity in the Twin Cities is up.

“We are, as a community, planning and trying to add units to keep everyone indoors and properly spaced,” said Berglund, noting that Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis shelters will be offering guests the option of keeping their spot day after day. It’s an exception to typical policy being made by service providers in other cities, too, to help the homeless find a consistent place to house during the winter.

Berglund said the most “daunting challenge,” however, is that the number of unsheltered people is rising, a development that service providers in other cities have reported as well. 

In Boston, for instance, while only 2% of the city’s homeless population has gone unsheltered in recent years, Pine Street Inn outreach workers have noted a near 40% increase in contacts with people on the streets in recent months. Part of the explanation there, as elsewhere, is that fear of catching COVID-19 may be keeping those without a home away from indoor spaces and services, a dynamic that will be tested as the weather continues to get colder.

But there are other factors in play, some of which suggest that the actual number of those experiencing homelessness may be rising. In the Twin Cities, Berglund said that homeless-services providers were already noticing an uptick in the unsheltered rate before the coronavirus pandemic, but that COVID-19 has undoubtedly made things worse, as many on the margins of poverty have faced job loss. In fact, a Columbia University analysis projected that homelessness would increase by 40% to 45% this year due to the economic downturn.

But the rate in cities across the nation could get even higher as soon as January, the coldest month of the year for most of the U.S.

“The next wave is evictions,” said Capuchin Brother Robert Wotypka, ministry director at Capuchin Community Services in Milwaukee, referring to the scheduled expiration of a federal moratorium on evictions on Dec. 31. If unaddressed and if no state or city moratorium is in place, mass evictions could create another surge of those in need of housing. Thus, even all the alternative steps taken by local officials to make up for COVID-related capacity reductions at traditional providers may not be able to meet a growing need at the most dire time of the year.

While the Capuchins in Milwaukee aren’t able to provide overnight shelter at St. Ben’s Community Meal this winter like they normally do when temperatures drop below freezing, they do offer interventions between tenants and landlords to help people with a onetime temporary rent crisis.

“But that won’t be the community’s problem if we don’t commit resources to secure housing,” said Brother Robert, implying the need for greater proactivity to address the potential housing crisis.


Winter Blues 

While the combination of winter weather and COVID certainly poses challenges for the physical well-being of those experiencing homelessness, advocates also worry that the cold and dark of winter could compound a sense of isolation and despair among homeless people that’s already higher than normal due to minimized social contact during the pandemic.

In Detroit, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen will still be able to provide meals to those in need at their two meal program sites, but social distancing means guests won’t be able to sit down with each other and staff. “When you take that element out of it, that’s a huge loss for the ministry,” said Capuchin Brother Jerry Johnson, executive director. “People don’t have that same companionship that you normally have. There’s been a lot of sadness that’s just hard on people.” 

In Minnesota, Berglund said COVID regulations have contributed to a sense of isolation by limiting group activities, like movie nights and bingo. Additionally, although Catholic Charities is still able to take volunteers for distribution and food service, they are not as able to interact with guests as fully, diminishing another avenue of human connection. 

Berglund and her staff have noted an increase in mental-health issues among their guests during COVID times. Efforts have been made via telehealth to connect those in need with doctors or therapists virtually, but Berglund said many guests haven’t taken them up on it. In her view, providing a sense of belonging for the homeless men and women who come to Catholic Charities facilities is a “basic need,” one “that’s as important for the people we serve as it is for anyone else.”

“And so right now, that’s kind of a blank hole,” she said about COVID-related restrictions on social interactions. “It’s a tough one.”

In Denver, missionaries with Christ in the City report that the homeless, who often already feel abandoned and overlooked, have felt those things in a new way during COVID, as the city’s downtown has become quieter and less-trafficked, with restaurants and venues shuttered and businesses conducting affairs virtually.

“That sense of loneliness and isolation is only being escalated,” said Blake Brouillette, Christ in the City’s program director. Brouillette said that when the pandemic first hit, Christ in the City actually expanded its ministry to also focus on providing food and clothing after several Denver-area services were forced to close. While those services are essential, with the winter closing in, he stressed the importance of the apostolate’s primary goal, which is to befriend and come to know their homeless brothers and sisters. “It’s very important to love the poor during the winter,” he said.


Silver Linings?

In many places, the need to expand housing capacity before the winter may lead to new opportunities. In Milwaukee, Brother Robert noted that county and city officials have invested considerable resources into not only finding overnight shelter for those in need by contracting motels, but pushing for rapid rehousing options.

“So the path is not night after night in a hotel or a motel room,” he explained. “It’s, ‘We’re going to get you a place to live.’”

The Capuchin brother said Milwaukee now has an opportunity to find long-term solutions to homelessness and housing, describing the overnight shelter offered at the meal hall as a mere “stopgap solution.” Although the city suffers from significant rates of poverty, it also doesn’t have the same issues of exorbitant housing costs that cities like San Francisco and New York do.

But the push to find rehousing options now is being funded in part by CARES dollars, assistance given by the federal government. If that money disappears in 2021, he’s not sure state and local officials will have the wherewithal to take advantage of the potential opportunity to break out of a “business as usual” mentality provided by COVID.

“It’s not a silver lining if we decide that we can go back to an ‘emergency’ approach next winter,” he said.

For this winter, at least, Pine Street Inn’s Trevisan encapsulated what many service providers around the country are feeling as the nation moves into mid-December.

“We’re really trying to do anything we can to keep people safe during the cold winter months,” she said. “It looks like it’s going to be a dark few months coming up, but, hopefully, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel.”