A line was already forming when a small band of volunteers pulled up to Market Square in downtown Roanoke. The queue stacked up halfway down the block: 18, 19, 20.
“Twenty-one,” called out Dana Perry, whom others on the street refer to as “mother” and who had carefully kept track of every soul in need who showed up.
The volunteers — hopping out of a supply truck adapted out of an old, retired rescue vehicle — got to work. Hot meals, bagged up to go, were spaced out so each could be easily grabbed with social distancing intact.
Another man crossed the twilight-tinted street to join the queue. Dawn Sandoval, of The Least of These Ministry, greeted him by name.
She asked after another regular whom she didn’t spot in the line that night. The absence worried her. There were so many to worry for during these uncertain times.
In the months since COVID-19 made its swift and disruptive presence known, service providers have been hustling to reinforce the safety net for one of the region’s most vulnerable populations: people without housing and without means to shelter in place. The most recent point-in-time survey of homelessness in the Roanoke Valley, conducted Jan. 22 by advocacy organizations, counted 276 homeless people. Last year’s survey counted 319.
The network of support has spanned from shelters to city agencies to small nonprofits, like The Least of These, which Sandoval founded in 2011 to help the valley’s people without homes.
The needs can be many when no necessity can be taken for granted. The Least of These — which specializes in street outreach working with those who carve out space for themselves in hidden corners of the community — stocks its truck not just with food but with toiletries, socks, blankets and other staples.
When COVID-19 began upending daily life, the nonprofit was among the groups that swung into action, intensifying its efforts and adding services like a daily lunch distribution as well as hot dinners when possible.
The group’s work takes it into encampments and other spots where homeless people can be served. The outreach is a chance to not only help meet essential needs but to check in on the well-being of people — to connect with them, offer resources and let them know they aren’t alone or forgotten.
That last message is one that Sandoval signal boosted on this particular evening in late April as she bowed her head and paused for a shared moment of grace.
“Lord, we thank you for each life represented here,” she said.
“We just pray that you put a halo of protection around them during this pandemic,” she continued. “We pray that they know they are loved.”
A respite for the vulnerable
One of the complex puzzles that quickly confronted those who serve the region’s people without housing was the question of how to safely shelter them while creating the distance needed to fight the spread of the virus.
To date, no cases of COVID-19 have been seen among the region’s people without homes, a track record that advocates are working to keep intact.
“We’re really trying to keep everyone safe and in a good place,” said Lee Clark, of the Roanoke Rescue Mission, the region’s largest overnight shelter.
That required changing up how local shelters operate to add layers of protection. The Rescue Mission began asking new guests to quarantine for an initial precautionary period, and urged all in the shelter to limit their community exposure by staying at the mission during the day, something that usually would be allowed only for those in the nonprofit’s family quarters.
That comes on top of a series of other steps including distributing masks, setting hand washing protocols, intensifying cleaning and creating as much social distancing as possible within the facility.
The process of evaluation and re-evaluation is constant, said advocates who have been teaming up across organizations to coordinate efforts.
Over the past month, that work has helped bring about a new initiative for the region, leveraging federal and state emergency grants to start offering hotel rooms for those who are at the highest risk due to their age or underlying conditions.
The program, a first for the valley on this scale, is creating respite for the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, allowing them to fully self-quarantine.
“This was one of the concerns we had at the very beginning when it became clear COVID-19 wasn’t going away,” said Jeanne McCormack, executive director of ARCH Services, a nonprofit that’s helped spearhead the emergency lodging program.
“How were we going to protect the most vulnerable of the populations we serve?” she said. “That has been a top priority.”
The ability to shelter in place remains crucial even as Virginia enters a phased reopening of public life. State health leaders continue to stress the need to be cautious and maintain space from others. Their mantra: safer at home.
Currently, the emergency lodging program is sheltering about 50 people, identified with help from partners like the Rescue Mission and the city’s homeless assistance team.
More clients are being added each week with help from a coalition of groups. The Salvation Army is cooking daily meals that are delivered to the rooms. And organizations are pooling their staff to provide case management and other support.
The ultimate aim is to offer not just short-term but long-term aid that culminates in a client being ready to transition to permanent supportive housing.
“That’s our goal, for not a single person to be discharged from the hotels and end up back on the streets,” McCormack said.
“That’s going to be a huge feat. But the safest place for anyone is to be able to be in their own home.”
The emergency grant funding is expected to last through the summer. Next steps beyond that are already being contemplated.
Case managers and nonprofits meet regularly to discuss the needs of those in the program and the search for long-term housing options. Housing for some clients has come together already.
The initiative has required extensive planning as well as the ability to scramble when needed. Last week when a string of rain-soaked days spurred flooding in the region, clients had to be evacuated from the Ramada Inn in Roanoke as rising waters loomed.
All were safely moved to new rooms in other hotels on higher ground. Organizers plan to stick with their new accommodations to avoid the upheaval of another short-term move.
“We don’t want to redo that again,” McCormack said. “We want them to be safe and to be comfortable.”
Seeking longer-term solutions
The pressures created by the pandemic crisis are casting a bright light on an issue advocates have long grappled with: a need for affordable housing.
The fragile circumstances of both homeless people and of many with housing are weighing on the minds of service providers as they look toward the future.
Shelters that serve daily meals for all in need — albeit bagged up to-go these days to promote social distancing — were noticing a rise in people coming who have housing but might be finding themselves walking a financial tightrope amid the strain of COVID-19.
These are households that may be making ends meet with a little help right now. But could that change as time wears on and heightened safeguards, such as state eviction protections and federal aid for unemployment, start to fall away?
“That is a danger I’m concerned about,” said Lee Clark with the Rescue Mission. “Folks who’ve been able to kind of keep things together, if some of these supports go away, could they lose their housing?”
Groups such as the city’s homeless assistance team share that worry, and are working to strengthen programs for financial relief and rapid rehousing support.
Landlords willing to partner with organizations are crucial to that work.
“We do need more on board,” said McCormack, whose nonprofit is among those that works to secure housing for clients.
ARCH Services agrees to lease units in its name and ensure delivery of monthly rent. Case managers continue to support clients and work closely with landlords, McCormack said.
But there are still clients on a waiting list for placements. More housing opportunities would help lift people out of that limbo and into a new phase of life.
In downtown, as dinner was being distributed by The Least of These Ministry that night in April, Dana Perry said kindnesses such as these help comfort those on the street amid difficult, worrying times.
“People like them restore some of our faith,” she said.
Perry had been homeless for the past nine months after losing her job. She’s since been able to shelter in a hotel through the emergency lodging program.
But that night, when asked about the biggest needs facing the homeless community, her mind didn’t turn first to the stark necessities of daily life.
Instead, she thought of how homeless people are often stigmatized and marginalized, of the significance of every kindness and dignity extended.
“The biggest need, I think, is just for people not to look at us like we’re trash,” she said, growing emotional. “We are not trash.”
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