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COVID Changes Homeless Outreach

August 21, 2020

In a normal week prior to COVID, you would typically find People Incorporated’s Homeless Outreach team in libraries, working with individuals who are homeless and hidden, and collaborating with many area nonprofit agencies to help them find food, shelter, financial support, healthcare, mental health services, and more. You would also find staff working at our drop-in center, building trust with people who use the center as a refuge from steamy summer humidity or blustery winter winds. It is here where they might convince someone to take a shower for the first time in weeks. The simple act of showering can often be a turning point for someone’s mental health recovery – a new beginning on a journey to recovery and wellness.

You’ll also find our team on the streets and in the woods, connecting with people in encampments – both hidden and in the open – offering supplies such as sleeping bags, food, and fresh, clean socks. These empathetic gifts help individuals survive, build trust, and often provide an open door to mental health recovery.

When COVID-19 rocked our community, everything changed.

“For people living on the streets especially, it’s really hard to meet your basic needs – to get food, keep your phone charged, stay warm and out of the elements or cool in the summer, and with COVID, it became even harder for people to stay safe and meet their needs,” says David Katzenmeyer, Street Outreach and Project Recovery Program Supervisor.

With libraries and drop-in centers closed, and most shelters reducing capacity to accommodate social distancing, our team adapted their services to accommodate new needs as homelessness and the prevalence of encampments grew:

  • We increased our time in encampments, visiting individuals tent by tent, and creating “drop-in” times at a central access point.
  • We offered more essential supplies for outdoor sheltering, such as tents, tarps, sleeping bags, socks, and underwear.
  • We created new protocols to allow individuals to still visit the drop-in center for essential services like laundry and showers, while also maintaining social distancing.
  • We began offering meal pick-ups in collaboration with some of our outreach partners.

“We were seeing more anxiety and more depression around getting basic needs met, but I’m really proud to say our team jumped in without hesitation into meeting these needs,” says David. “We are providing more meal and food delivery services, more outreach time, increasing drop-in times in city parks, and even partnering with internal licensed social workers to provide more services.”

Despite the challenges, the visibility of encampments and growing advocacy from community members like you for individuals experiencing homelessness allowed staff more time to work in encampments to stabilize people and get them the supports they need.

“We had one individual we had been working with for years, but had a difficult time staying connected because he was constantly having to move – he reported his camp being cleared 18 times in just the few years we’d been trying to help him – on top of trying to cope with a substance use disorder and schizophrenia,” says David. “It was really hard to find him. I’m really, really happy to say that this person is now living in a studio apartment and getting the help he needs.”