Homeless Akronites have ‘nowhere to go’ during pandemic

by Kyle Cochrun

For Akronites without a place to live, life is constantly spent around others: On city buses, in libraries, in crowded kitchens, in homeless shelter dayrooms and overnight-stay dormitories. 

On March 23, Ohio’s Stay At Home order eliminated many of those options for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. The document, issued by Department of Health Director Amy Acton, included a list of exemptions to the order. 

“People experiencing homelessness” was first. 

“We’re dealing with a population that has nowhere to go,” says Jeff Kaiser, CEO of Haven of Rest Ministries, an Akron homeless shelter continuing its regular services during the pandemic. 

Kaiser says the Haven of Rest is currently housing 170 to 180 guests overnight between three different buildings and is working to continually educate both its staff and guests on the importance of handwashing and social distancing. 

“We’re still serving meals inside, but instead of sitting eight a table we’re sitting four,” Kaiser says. “In both our dayrooms we’ve expanded where our chairs are to space them out more.”

ACCESS Shelter, which provides emergency housing for homeless women and children in the Akron area, has responded to the coronavirus by closing communal spaces such as the playroom, teen room and lounge areas. 

“We have implemented a new meal schedule so that everyone is not in our dining rooms at the same time,” says Jackie Hemsworth, the shelter’s executive director. “We have also tightened guidelines for coming and going from the shelter in order to be in line with the ‘stay at home’ order given by the Governor.”

ACCESS resident Cenisha Tapely, who stays in the shelter with her four children, points out that, despite the efforts towards social distancing, the nature of life in a homeless shelter is that contact with others is unavoidable. 

“There’s lots of people coming and going,” Tapely says. “The bathroom is not only for us. The people that’s next to our room have to use it, and anybody in the shelter can use it. When you come in or out your room you got to walk by somebody. There’s no way around it.”

Tapely has been working towards securing a home for her and her children. However, she says this has recently become a greater struggle since the COVID-19 pandemic caused landlords to become hesitant about showing their properties.

“Some of the landlords not even calling back,” Tapely says. “I set up schedules for showings with two of [the landlords], and they didn’t even show.”

Hemsworth has also noticed this trend.

“Many shelter residents are currently struggling to move forward into their own place because landlords are not able to show apartments,” she says. “Additionally, many people experiencing homelessness have service industry jobs which may be temporarily shut down. This will have a trickle-down effect of shelters becoming full, and new people that need shelter will not be able to come in. Our system could easily become overwhelmed.”

The pandemic has already taken an enormous economic toll: 468,000 Ohioans applied for unemployment during the last two weeks of March, more than filed for unemployment during all of 2019. People and organizations who serve the homeless expect to serve more and more people in the coming weeks and months as that toll grows. 

The Peter Maurin Center provides meals for the homeless on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. The center has closed its dining room and instead is setting to-go lunches in Styrofoam containers outside for pickup.

“We’re serving more than we’ve ever served,” says Jim Orenga, director of the Peter Maurin Center. 

“I was thinking of closing down three weeks ago when the Governor said, ‘Shut everything down,’ but several volunteers came to me and said, ‘No, we want to continue to serve because these people need food more than ever.’ So I decided to stay open and just have these precautions.”

The Continuum of Care, a coalition of several dozen Summit County homeless-serving agencies, is creating a homeless quarantine center in the gym at The Chapel near the University of Akron campus, WKSU reported Tuesday. The site is meant to give anyone with COVID-19 symptoms a place where they can limit their interactions with others while they recover. If people develop severe symptoms, they will be sent to the hospital, officials say.

According to an issue brief from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, of the estimated 550,000 homeless Americans, many are “especially susceptible to the COVID-19 virus” due to chronic medical conditions, frequent exposure to congregate settings like shelters and soup kitchens, a “limited ability to follow public health advice” due to poor living conditions, and the negative effects of stigma and discrimination. Additionally, studies show an increase in homeless individuals in America ages 50 to 64, an age-range that already has a heightened risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19. 

“If [COVID-19] develops the way they say it’s going to develop, we’re going to have homeless people fighting for beds in the hospital with our senior citizens,” says Sage Lewis, a local activist and head of the Homeless Charity nonprofit. 

Lewis believes that local homeless service providers and the city of Akron have yet to sufficiently react to the problem of homelessness during the pandemic.

A paper published on March 25 by researchers from the UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania estimates that COVID-19 will cause 3,454 homeless deaths in the United States. The study also states “that the true likely fatality outcome would be on the higher end of this range given the challenge of actually getting homeless clients to the hospital, especially when they are unsheltered, as well as the unusually high mortality risks that prevail among the homeless population.”

At this moment, there are no easy answers for how to combat homelessness during the pandemic. 

The CDC has recommended the Department of Housing and Urban Development enact moratoriums on foreclosures and evictions and has declared that local governments should not clear homeless encampments. 

In an article for STAT, Dr. Miriam Komaromy and Michael Botticelli suggest the US “use suddenly empty and available living spaces” such as “empty dorm and hotel rooms” and “abandoned offices” to house homeless individuals. King County, Washington plans to move 400 homeless residents into regional hotels in order to reduce the strain on shelters, and it’s likely the state of California will soon follow suit. Whether this trend will continue across the country is unclear. 

In Akron, homeless service providers continue to aid the local homeless population and do their best to stave off the likelihood of infection within highly-populated shelters. 

“We will get through this,” says Jeff Kaiser of the Haven of Rest. “Right now it’s just one of those times when there’s so much uncertainty that we’re just strategizing day by day in the best way we can.”

Kyle Cochrun is a writer and turntablist from Akron, Ohio. Contact him at kylecochrun@gmail.com.