GREENSBORO — Michelle Kennedy is a veteran of crisis.
“This is rough,” said the executive director of the Interactive Resource Center, a day center for the homeless or nearly homeless, of trying to help more of the most vulnerable as the new coronavirus spreads.
“We are doing everything we know to do.”
Kennedy admits she’s making decisions that she’ll have to worry about later as the pandemic leaves deaths, closed schools and businesses in its wake.
On Monday morning she signed a check to place elderly people from the homeless community into hotels, two people to a room — taking $2,500 from an already shoe-string budget to pay for just a week. The nonprofit also has a plan with Cone Health Foundation to find rooms for people who might have serious health problems or are just out of the hospital.
“They are so at-risk there’s no other option,” Kennedy said. “For us, this is not a long-term financially sustainable plan, but the reality is it’s the best decision for the common good. It’s kind of what we have to do.
“As a community we are only as healthy as our most vulnerable,” Kennedy said.
Across the Triad, agencies are trying to make sure the homeless are not forgotten or overlooked.
Greensboro Urban Ministry, another safety net for the homeless and needy, continues to operate its shelter but is packing up bag lunches to go for those who are hungry.
So many of GUM’s most loyal volunteers are elderly that the leadership there is asking for others to help out as they limit their exposure to crowds.
“Please keep us in your prayers while we continue to carry out our important mission while doing our best to protect everyone from this virus,” wrote Myron Wilkins, the agency’s executive director, on the nonprofit’s website.
The Homeless Union, an advocacy group for the poor and homeless, issued a statement Monday calling on public officials to take specific steps that take into account their plights.
The group’s demands include a moratorium on evictions, foreclosures and dispersal of homeless encampments by police, safe and affordable housing immediately, and health care for those with none.
“They have to realize that this doesn’t get better if we just leave people on the streets to die,” said Marcus Hyde, one of the Homeless Union organizers. “A lot of good can be done in a crisis like this when we recognize your health affects my health.”
Some of these concerns were being discussed earlier Monday on a federal level, such as delaying foreclosures and evictions for 30 days.
It also presents an amazing opportunity, Hyde said.
“These have been the demands of the Homeless Union before the crisis,” Hyde said. “This is just common sense public health.”
Area organizations like the IRC and the YWCA that are working with the homeless just can’t shut their doors because of these concerns. Both the IRC and the YWCA say they need cash to offset additional costs.
“There is no ‘other’ in this,” said Lindy Garnette, executive director of the YWCA, whose family shelter is full. “It’s all of us.”
The YWCA shelter, which provides housing and a warm meal onsite to the families and more than a dozen women in a winter emergency shelter through Greensboro Urban Ministry, used to close during the day for cleaning. Families left in the morning and returned later in the day.
Starting today, the shelter will be under its “shelter-in-place” protocol, meaning no residents will be permitted to leave the premises except for those who are required to work and to access medical care, the agency said in a news release.
“Some of them are more scared than others,” Garnette said of shelter residents. “Unlike the rest of us, they are very dependent on other people, so that’s added stress and worry. We’re trying to assure them we are going to see this thing through, and this too shall pass.”
The YWCA is looking for cash donations but also items to help the family shelter operate, such as detergent, food and even games for the children. There’s a specific request for thermometers so that each family has one of its own.
People can leave the items at the shelter’s entrance. “If you don’t want to have human contact, you can ring the bell and leave it there,” Garnette said.
The IRC is also asking for cash donations to help, for example, with the hotel rooms.
“The only other thing we need, literally, is hand sanitizer, because we are giving that to people while they are out in the street,” Kennedy said.
They are not accepting volunteers or donations of any kind at the door for the safety of everyone, and have a limited staff. They are asking for cash donations through their website.
When Kennedy arrived at the IRC early Monday morning, 86 people were already in line — with a number of new faces.
The IRC is usually only open during the day and provides services such as laundry and showers and is continuing to do so.
“It’s because they don’t know what else to do,” Kennedy, also a member of the Greensboro City Council, said of the growing daily numbers. “They don’t know where else to go. They are coming here looking for answers, looking for direction and looking for hope in this frightening moment.”
The agency has expanded its hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, although it’s limiting the number of people inside the building to 25 at a time with a staff of four working 12-hour shifts. The nonprofit is adapting to public health guidelines that call for limited contact.
Other employees are working from home because the schools have closed or they themselves are medically vulnerable.
Kennedy is working on setting up an onsite health assessment tent on the nonprofit’s grounds, but until then her staff is taking temperatures as people enter the building. There are outdoor sanitizer stations and a portable bathroom for when the building is closed.
Kennedy said teams are visiting the local homeless encampments to check on people. Her eldest child recently reminded her that safety guidelines from as high as the White House call for people who can to stay home.
“I have a 12-year-old and a 7-month-old and both Allyson and I — both parents in my family — work in essentially social service fields with high-risk populations, so I get it,” Kennedy said.
“This is like many instances where there is a crisis in the homeless community — we end up doing the exact opposite of what everyone else is doing. That’s where we are.”
Across the Triad, the agencies are looking for individual partners even if it’s just this one time. They are also planning to work with other groups.
“This is not stuff that we can budget for, that we have budgeted for,” Garnette said. “Our shelter was already strained.”
With communicable disease experts saying large shelters are not the solution, Garnette said she hopes local governments will consider opening unused buildings.
“Can we look at opening up some vacant county buildings so we can spread people out?” Garnette said.
Garnette and others say that there have to be more conversations about the plight of the homeless.
“What’s not in anybody’s best interest is for people exposed to be wandering around because they have no place to be,” she said. “When I say the onus is on our local government and our local agencies, I’m not in any way being derogatory to the people who need the help. That’s on us.”