Indiana Daily Student

How the coronavirus affected Bloomington’s homeless population

United Way invited Bloomington residents to attend ‘Wake Up! with United Way: Adapting Shelters to Social Distancing’ on Thursday morning. The webinar welcomed residents to discuss the unprecedented challenges that people experiencing homelessness and the organizations that support them face during the pandemic.  

The webinar, led by Efrat Feferman, Executive Director of United Way Monroe County, featured guest speakers Debra Morrow, Executive Director of Middle Way House; Chase Techentin, Director of The Roof at New Hope for Families Keirsten White, Director of the Monroe County Isolation Shelter; and Dana Jones, Director of Center for Men at Wheeler Mission Bloomington.

Monroe County has an estimated homeless population of 380, and as a result there are multiple resources meant to provide care and support to those who need it. However, the coronavirus pandemic has introduced new difficulties.

Organizations that once provided communal spaces and bunk beds suddenly have to find more space to ensure that those who rely on shelters for aid are not instead living in a coronavirus hotspot. 

The Shalom Community Center reported scaling up to larger spaces and paring down the number of people that could be present in the shelter at a time. This process could not be completed overnight and the shelter had to temporarily shut its doors during the transition. 

Keirsten White, Director of the Monroe County Isolation Shelter discussed the unique difficulties people experiencing homelessness faced when the majority of Bloomington’s public spaces such as libraries were closed. 

“In the beginning Shalom shut its doors and people got service outside. People who are experiencing homelessness don’t really have anywhere they can go inside,” White said, recounting a man who told her that he “lost all of his defense mechanisms” when coronavirus shut the city down. 

Many who once relied on public buildings and shelters for temporary relief from the outdoors were unable to use those familiar spaces for weeks. 

However, some people suffer not because they are stuck outside, but rather because they are trapped inside with abusive family members. Debra Morrow shared insight on how difficult coronavirus has been for survivors of domestic abuse. 

Consistent phone calls for help in domestic violence situations became scarce when the city shut down, Morrow said. 

“The calls were dropping and we knew that when things opened back up then the phones would be ringing off the hook again and that's exactly what happened,” Morrow said. 

When the city shut down many people were sent home and stayed there, making it unsafe for victims of domestic violence to reach out for help without potentially alerting their abusers. 

Providing resources for those in need is a complex endeavor because no two cases are the same. It becomes more so when families are taken into account. Chase Techentin expressed the sentiment that homelessness looks different when a family, rather than a single person, is affected. 

People who would have once welcomed struggling friends or family members into their homes are now understandably wary to do so due to the increased risk of transmission Techentin said.

“The eviction moratorium has been lifted. Many families will experience homelessness because people don’t want to share their space right now,” he said. “We are aware of that, we are ready, and we are professionals.” 

Attendees, who were open to asking questions and making notes in the meeting’s chat function, provided additional resources. 

“The rental assistance support Chase is referring to is accessible through www.indianahousingnow.org,” Rev. Forrest Gilmore said in a chat box.

Another attendee offered a resource for those who were already served eviction notices.

“Please refer any people facing eviction to the Housing Eviction Prevention Project at evictionavoidance@gmail.com. They provide legal services, mediation, and housing referrals for Monroe County cases,” Catherine Stafford said in a chat box.

Dana Jones, made it clear that these organizations are ready and willing to help those in need, they still need community support. 

Jones emphasized the importance of volunteering. He said he was sad he had to shut down the volunteer base when the pandemic begin. However, the volunteering portal is open again on their website wheelermission.org Jones said.

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