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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

The Pandemic

COVID-19 dilemma: How to keep homeless sheltered, staff safe

Jarad Bingham stands in front of the new Hub Hospitality plaza at 490 Washington Ave. on Sept. 1. Hospitality Hub, which provides more than 20 services for the homeless, reopened Tuesday, Nov. 24, after closing for a week when a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Two volunteers recently died of COVID-19. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian file)
Jarad Bingham stands in front of the new Hub Hospitality plaza at 490 Washington Ave. on Sept. 1. Hospitality Hub, which provides more than 20 services for the homeless, reopened Tuesday, Nov. 24, after closing for a week when a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Two volunteers recently died of COVID-19. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian file)

The Memphis Union Mission is working hard to keep COVID-19 from crashing Wednesday’s annual Thanksgiving Banquet.

Staff and volunteers will be handing out boxed meals to go instead of serving their guests at long, decorated tables inside.

They will be serving homeless men who have checked in with negative COVID tests, not just anyone off the street who needs a hot, holiday meal.

But the virus already has disrupted the city’s largest homeless shelter.

Freddie Inman, better known as Papa Smurf, the mission’s cantankerous and compassionate building manager, died Nov. 11 of complications from COVID-19. Inman worked at the mission for more than 20 years after arriving as a guest. He was 65.

“I’m still in disbelief,” said Scott Bjork, the mission’s president and CEO. “Freddie came in off the streets and did a 180. Gave his life to Christ and became a fixture here, an inspiration. I can still hear him with his gruff voice telling guys to take off their hats before they eat.”

Inman’s death, and the COVID-19 battles being waged by two other staff members, have cast a pall over the mission in a year that has been a daily struggle for those on and off the streets.

The struggle has intensified as the number COVID-19 cases and related deaths have surged this month.

Agencies and ministries that serve those experiencing homelessness are struggling to stay open because of COVID-19 infections among staff and safety precautions in general.

Room in the Inn, which provides emergency food and shelter for about 15 women every evening, suspended its regular operations Monday after a longtime volunteer died of complications due to COVID-19.

“He didn’t get infected because of his participation in the program, but it made me realize that we couldn’t take the chance that someone else might,” said Rev. Lisa Anderson, founding director.

Hospitality Hub, which helps the homeless connect to shelters and other resources, reopened Tuesday, Nov. 24, after closing for a week when a staff member tested positive. Two volunteers recently died of COVID-19.

But a new plan to make coronavirus testing more accessible to homeless men and women starting this week could help shelters meet the growing need this winter.

“We’ve all been frustrated and discouraged by the lack of capacity and access to testing,” said Jarad Bingham, a consultant for the Hospitality Hub. “But we’re confident that this new plan will mean that the vast majority of homeless men and women will be covered this winter.”

The plan, worked out Monday, Nov. 23, in a meeting with the city and representatives of various homeless agencies, would make pod testing available every morning at the Hub to any homeless person who needs it.

The UT Health Science Center’s lab would return results later the same day, in time for those who test negative to check in to a shelter that evening.

Memphis Union Mission and Calvary Rescue Mission, the city’s two largest shelters, require men to show evidence of a negative COVID test before checking in.

“Testing has been difficult, if not impossible, for many of our neighbors,” said Roger Wolcott, co-founder of Constance Abbey, a homeless ministry near St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. “Even if they can find transportation to get tested, how do they get results? They don’t have phones or emails.”

Wolcott spent the weekend trying to find shelter for four women and seven children who showed up at the door.

“The number of women and children we’re seeing now without shelter is frightening,” he said. “My concern right now is that we don’t know what to do when it gets colder.”

Agencies and ministries that serve the homeless believe the number of COVID-19 refugees will increase in the coming weeks.

MIFA is trying to accommodate the growing number of families applying for emergency housing assistance. More than 80% of them cite a job-related loss of income due to the pandemic.

“We’re seeing the fallout from the rising number of lost jobs, evictions, and domestic-violence victims,” Anderson said. “There’s too much need and not enough spaces.”

The Hub Hotel, which opened in July as the city’s first emergency shelter for women, has been able to stay open.

So has Dorothy Day House, which provides transitional shelters for nine families in three houses, remains open. “By adjusting staff hours and instituting COVID testing for all new residents, we have been able to continue our ministry as usual,” said Sister Maureen Griner, executive director.

Clare’s House, a shelter for women, also remains open. It is taking some of the women referred by Room in the Inn.

Room in the Inn reopened for the season on Nov. 1, but with only about half the number of shelter spaces it normally provides during winter months.

The program downsized to protect volunteers and guests and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Guests were grouped in pods and sheltered in the same locations with plexiglass divides and other precautions. Host congregations were limited to four volunteers.

Now, with regular operations suspended, the ministry is working to find shelter space for women and children in transitional housing as well as motels.

“Nobody is sleeping outside tonight because we closed,” Anderson said.

Calvary Rescue Mission on South Third is still operating at 50% of capacity. The shelter started accepting new guests again in September, but only men who tested negative for COVID.

Four staff members and one guest tested positive for COVID in August, and they were quickly and safely quarantined. Common areas were closed after that.

The shelter canceled its traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, which draw hundreds of volunteers.

“We got some pushback, but it’s just too risky,” said director Bob Freudiger, who said his entire family survived COVID-19 in July.

Like Calvary, the Union Mission has been operating far below capacity since the pandemic began, limiting the number of guests and volunteers allowed inside.

The death of Inman has been the most difficult casualty of the pandemic, but not the only one.

“I am recovering from the same COVID virus that took Freddie’s life,” said Jeff Patrick, pastor of the Mission’s Grace Church. “Three of us became sick, one died, one has been in the hospital for several weeks and I am recovering from pneumonia with time in hospital and now at home.”

Every agency and ministry for the homeless has struggled during the pandemic to keep staff, volunteers and guests safe and well.

Limiting access, maintaining distance and masking. Installing portable toilets, sinks and water fountains outside. Serving coffee and meals outside.

“We’re doing all we can to keep everyone safe, and we all know it would take just one positive test to shut it all down,” said Pete Gathje, founder and co-director of Manna House.

The daily challenges of the pandemic have led to more collaboration.

“This crisis has forced everybody to work together,” said Cheré Bradshaw, executive director of the Community Alliance for the Homeless. “We’ve all learned that we need to support each other. That will make a big difference in how we address these challenges going forward.”

This story first appeared at under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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