Butler County facing challenges helping the homeless in pandemic

As the nation tries to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, the homeless population faces additional challenges.

For homeless throughout the region, finding places to wash their hands frequently is tough, social distancing in a shelter is nearly impossible and it’s difficult getting medical care for coronavirus concerns.

As a result, conditions like those could accelerate the spread of the potentially deadly virus through the most vulnerable populations, according to homelessness activists.

“It’s terrifying right now,” said Bobby Grove, executive director of Haven House, a homeless shelter in Hamilton.

He said homeless are “more terrified than before, feeling even more stress.”

Haven House typically works with its residents to complete the necessary paperwork for unemployment benefits, permanent housing, and job applications. Those requirements have stopped for the time being, he said.

“We are here to feed them and house them,” Grove said.

Several local food pantries, concerned about the potential spread of the virus, have closed, eliminating one resource for the homeless, said Bill Fugate, volunteer coordinator for Serving Homeless Alternative Lodging Of Middletown (SHALOM), a seasonal, church-based agency that has closed until this winter.

And since restaurants no longer can serve customers inside, as ordered by Gov. Mike DeWine, their restrooms aren’t available for the homeless, Fugate said. The same goes for libraries, traditionally a popular place for the homeless.

He has heard some downtown Middletown churches have opened their restrooms to the homeless, but because of the church’s aging congregation, those most vulnerable to the coronavirus, that practice is limited.

“They want to help, but they have to be careful too,” Fugate said.

He was concerned by the number of homeless caught in the thunderstorms last week. The area received heavy rains Thursday night and Friday morning.

“There was no where else for them to go,” Fugate said. “When you’re homeless, you’re homeless and you’re outside with at least one other person.”

Kathy Becker, director of law enforcement and criminal justice for Access Counseling, constantly considers the plight of the homeless. But the coronavirus pandemic has made her realize how fortunate she is to have a warm house to call home.

“When I look out my window I realize how blessed I am,” she said. “But what about those that don’t have a home? People are shying away from the homeless. They’re an outcast. This has made it worst. But people have to remember that homeless are human beings and they need us more than ever.”

Being homeless during the coronavirus has created “an overwhelming feel of anxiety,” Becker said.

Chris Terry, director of Serve City, a Hamilton homeless shelter, said bunk beds there have been pushed at least six feet apart and turned so residents aren’t facing the same way. He hopes these “little things” reduce the spread.

There are 52 beds at Serve City and Terry said occupancy is 50 percent with 20 men and six women living there. But he expects those numbers to increase if non-violent inmates are released from Butler County jails.

Terry said residents now are allowed to stay longer than two weeks — a previous restriction — as long as they’re seeking employment.

Grove said Haven House has made some adjustments to its procedures recently as “preventative measures.” He said the shelter isn’t accepting home-cooked meals, clothing or bedding donations. For the next 30 days, only packaged items and cleaning supplies are being accepted and only if those items are dropped in the center’s vestibule, then retrieved by a staff member.

Also, he said, when someone inquires about living at Haven House, they’re asked health screening questions from a staff member in hopes of keeping those with coronavirus symptoms from spreading germs.

In the end, Grove said the homeless with continue being served at Haven House.

“This is a very vulnerable time,” he said. “We can’t stop doing what we are doing.”

Middletown Health Commissioner Jackie Phillips said some discussions have included reaching out to homeless shelters and requesting an area be set aside for the homeless who are sick to using unused hotel/motel rooms temporarily quarantine people.

However, Phillips said they are unable to go out to check the homeless in the community due to a lack of manpower.

She said the health department is building a database of volunteers to check on the elderly as well as taking suggestions from the community.

In addition, she has reached out to the Middletown school district and friends in the hotel business to obtain soap, hand sanitizers, etc. to distribute in the community.

“We don’t anyone sitting on any resources,” she said.

For the past several weeks since the pandemic erupted, Phillips has been working 18 hours a day. In addition to her day job, Phillips has gone on hospital runs and consults all hours of the night; morning and evening updates with her fellow health commissioners; answering City Council questions and inquiries; client monitoring 24/7; meeting with the Emergency Operations Center for countywide updates; community presentations; consultations with nursing homes.

Brandy Slavens of Access Counseling said her organization “taking their cues from the government.” She said the organization is working with Hope House in their transition to new facilities.

Awareness about Middletown’s homeless issue because a news story with downtown businesses complaining about them using restrooms, harassing customers, etc.

However, those issues have calmed in the past few weeks as the pandemic community spread continues.

Heather Gibson of Triple Moon Coffee Co. said she is doing a carry out business during the pandemic and plans to stay open as long as she can afford to. Gibson said she has not seen many homeless wandering around and that they are not at her door.

Ami Vitori, owner of Gracie’s restaurant and a city council member, said she’s seen some homeless around downtown, but it’s a lesser number than before.



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