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Pandemic exacerbates the challenges of homelessness in R.I.

With limited options, community organizations try to alleviate new concerns of those experiencing homelessness

The difficulties experienced by Rhode Island’s homeless population have only intensified in recent months, said Laura Jaworski, executive director of House of Hope Community Development Corporation. “In the early days of COVID-19, (the virus) was identified as a great equalizer,” Jaworski said, but that is “absolutely untrue.” 

Since March, the demand for shelter has quadrupled, Jaworski said. R.I. has lost 142 shelter beds in the statewide homeless shelter system, largely due to implementing social-distancing regulations.

Even though there is only a three-foot distance requirement in homeless shelters, “it’s still having a significant impact on the number of beds that some of our congregate shelters are able to accommodate,” she added. 

Another concern is the virus itself, especially when “so many of those that we serve have pretty significant underlying medical conditions, so they felt safer sleeping out than they would by coming into a large setting,” Jaworski said.

And the approaching colder months are a source of apprehension. “Not only is winter always a really bad time because of the weather, but there’s also at least one shelter that normally operates in Pawtucket that isn’t going to be open this winter,” said Annelise Ernst ’21, co-director of student-run organization Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere.

The organization works to address the “structural issues surrounding homelessness and poverty” in Rhode Island, according to its website.

“The number of people who have no shelter whatsoever … is so much higher than what we’ve really ever experienced,” said Dhruv Gaur ’21, the other HOPE co-director. He added that “a lot of our partners are saying that they expect numbers higher than we’ve ever seen.”

To quantify these observations, House of Hope CDC conducted a Point-in-Time Count, which is an assessment usually completed annually in January, to estimate the number of people experiencing homelessness this past September, Jaworski said. The number of individuals — both sheltered and unsheltered — experiencing homelessness is twice as high as it was last year, Jaworski said.

Access to information

Unequal access to information has played a significant role in how the homeless population has been able to respond to the pandemic. “Many of our folks struggle with connectivity in terms of information, technology, news and whatnot, because they’re solely focused, in many ways, on survival,” Jaworski said.

When common and public places began closing, many people lost their access to news and charging stations, leaving them in the dark about current events and federal and state health guidelines. As a result, Jaworski added that House of Hope CDC began to view itself as “ad-hoc public health workers, where we were distributing information around physical distancing (and) good hand-washing practices” in addition to “distributing hand sanitizer and masks (and) posting informational signs in English and Spanish and with infographics.”

Closure of resources

According to Jaworski, when food pantries and fast food restaurants shut down during the pandemic, it became even more difficult for people experiencing homelessness to access food sources. Reliable access to water also became more uncertain for many. And public establishments used to serve as “safe spaces,” where people experiencing homelessness could “take a rest or sit for a moment,” Jaworski said. With many closed or at limited capacity, this option is no longer as feasible for R.I.’s homeless community.

Public spaces also functioned as reliable locations for using the bathroom. “This is something in terms of the pandemic that a lot of us don’t think about, because a bathroom is something that we all just take for granted,” Ernst said. 

Before the pandemic, people experiencing homelessness already had limited access to other basic facilities such as showers. With the onset of the pandemic, “Shower to Empower” — a mobile showering and hygiene unit operated by House of Hope CDC, Team Williams, LLC and the City of Providence — had to close for three months. “We made the decision (to close temporarily) because we were more concerned about ourselves being a vector of transmission,” Jaworski said. “We were afraid that we might be transmitting unknowingly. And so we didn’t want to, by any means, create spaces for that.”

This decision was “gut-wrenching,” as many people rely heavily on the showers, haircuts and medical services that come with Shower to Empower, Jaworski added. 

During that three-month hiatus, the operation pivoted to “Trunks to Empower,” a project where teams still went to the shower truck’s typical locations and distributed supplies and information as well as providing case management and medical services. While the medical services eventually had to cease, the other services have been offered consistently, Jaworski said. Now, Shower to Empower is up and running after working with a cleaning company to develop a regimen of wearing masks and gloves and disinfecting the shower stalls, she added.

Another consequence of the pandemic is its effect on transportation and its disproportionate impact on the homeless community. Complications replacing bus passes and limiting capacity on buses also puts strain on many other aspects of their lives. For instance, one problem Jaworski has noticed is that without public transportation, many people experiencing homelessness can no longer get their food stamp cards.

Advocacy work

Groups such as HOPE and House of Hope CDC are working to alleviate some of this added burden. In abiding by the University and Swearer Center’s regulations for COVID-19 safety, “all the projects we do have to be remote and/or virtual,” Gaur said. Instead of physically going into the community, “we are doing our best to listen to our community partners and support their needs as best as we can.”

HOPE is currently working with the Rhode Island Center for Justice to raise awareness about the CDC eviction moratorium, a federal declaration to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to Gaur and Ernst. HOPE has also organized contactless supply drives for students moving into dorms and is in the process of developing different means of internet-based advocacy, including designing infographics and pioneering blogs.

Other projects are still up in the air, said Ernst, as they try every day to “piece this together” while also focusing on supporting their community partners. But Gaur added that this is difficult, because “people experiencing homelessness can’t get on Zoom. … Me getting on Zoom is not really going to do anything for a lot of the people who we work with.”

Overall, the work cut out for HOPE, House of Hope CDC and other community organizations has grown. “Crisis is our middle name,” Jaworski said.  “We know how to roll in crisis and chaos; our folks are often dealing (with) many chaotic situations, and so being able to pivot is part of our nature.” 

But the problems facing the homeless community have only been inflamed by the pandemic, she added. “Our support … is frayed and the demand is beyond what we’re able to do.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that House of Hope CDC has lost 142 shelter beds in its individual shelter system. In fact, R.I. has lost 142 shelter beds in the statewide homeless shelter system. The Herald regrets the error. 


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