Like most of us, Carolyn Bolin learned about the COVID-19 pandemic on the news. She was shocked to see the public health crisis worsen, spread to the United States, and soon reach her own city, Indianapolis.
“I never thought there would be a day when something like this would happen,” says Bolin.
Unlike most of us, Bolin hasn’t barricaded herself inside her home for the foreseeable future when the shops closed and Indiana’s stay-at-home order was put in place in early March. That’s because she didn’t have one. In the midst of a global pandemic, a recession and the biggest unrest movement of this century so far, she and her fiance, a disabled ex-marine, spend their days on street corners with a cardboard sign that reads “Homeless, everything helps”, “Smile :)” and ” God bless you! “In blue marking.
Bolin is part of the homeless population in Indianapolis, the last more than 1,500 people in 2019. Just as COVID-19 has changed almost every aspect of daily life, it has also changed homelessness and influenced how nonprofits seek to support the homeless. Founded in 1893, the Wheeler Mission provides food, shelter, clothing, and a caseworker to people in need like Bolin and her fiancé. Despite COVID-19 outbreaks, lack of volunteers and funding difficulties, the mission continued its operations during the pandemic.
William Bumphus, the director of the Wheeler Mission men’s house in Indianapolis, was one of 18 employees who contracted COVID-19 in early April. Bumphus, 40, says he contracted the coronavirus after working on the mission in the early stages of the pandemic.
In addition to the mission’s sick staff, 27 of the 177 mission guests tested had a confirmed case of the new virus, and one guest died from the disease. “Even though it’s only one person (who died), it’s still one too many,” says Bumphus. “We hope he heard the gospel, and we hope that his stay here was pleasant, given the condition in which he was.”
The outbreak was caused by the lack of social distancing, says Bumphus. In an animal shelter designed to care for as many homeless people as possible, in which each dormitory has up to 60 bunk beds and the number of guests in the common room doubles the nightly population, personal space rarely matters.
Steve Kerr, executive vice president of promotion at Wheeler Mission, says that in order to enable social distancing, the mission has invested in four additional locations to distribute the bunk beds needed to care for their male guests, including a church and a building on the Indiana State Fairgrounds. “We were immediately concerned about the spread of COVID-19 among our guests,” says Kerr. “Many of them are very vulnerable and many have health problems. That’s why we took immediate action to work with the City of Indianapolis and the Marion County Health Department. “
Even after Bumphus and many of his staff contracted the virus, they continued to work to limit its impact on the homeless population served by Wheeler Mission. The pandemic has made some aspects of helping the mission’s guests more difficult – for example, more people became unemployed in the coronavirus recession, making it more difficult to help guests find work and to increase the number of guests during the day. further reduce social distancing.
Kerr says the closings of many businesses and public buildings, such as the Indianapolis Public Library, where many people affected by homelessness are using computers or checking out books, have removed resources and everyday housing for the homeless, adding to the burden on the mission.
However, according to Bumphus, little has changed in the daily operations and goals of the mission: providing food, clothing and shelter to the mission’s guests, as well as case management services to help them get back on their feet.
“We still serve quite a few people, we still serve food – breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he says.
Just as many operations on the mission are the same today as they were before COVID-19, life on the street remains largely unchanged. Bolin says she and her fiancé slept under a bridge the night a few weeks ago when they were attacked by another person who was homeless.
Bolin lost blood from a cut on her right temple, where she was given clamps in the hospital to close the wound that still glistened under her pale hair. “It’s very annoying, it’s very scary,” says Bolin. “You’re out here, you don’t know where you’re going from one day to the next, and you don’t know if you’re going to come into contact with someone who has (COVID-19). ”
Despite the security offered by shelters like Wheeler Mission, Bolin and her fiancé don’t want to go because they would be separated. Wheeler Mission has one shelter for men and one for women and children in Indianapolis, so the couple would have to stay separate.
Another homeless Indianapolis resident, Brandon Eaton, agrees with Bolin that he’d rather not go to the Wheeler Mission for help. Although fewer people give him money these days and he eats most of his meals out of trash cans since the grocery stamp office closed due to the pandemic, he fears that if he goes to see Wheeler’s, he will get sick. “I’m not really going to the Wheeler Mission,” says Eaton. “The homeless there are angry and they could spread COVID-19.”
But even before the pandemic, Eaton had never considered going to a place like Mission. He prefers his current lifestyle. “I’m a homeless man who actually likes to live on the streets,” says Eaton. “When I have everything to myself, I can live perfectly on the street.”
Life on the street today is in some ways more difficult than it was a year ago. For people with homelessness who believe they have COVID-19 and are not living in a shelter, the Marion County Health Department will offer help, says Bumphus. The department has set up places where the homeless can be quarantined if necessary. “If there is someone out there who is homeless and unable to self-isolate, there is nowhere to go. Contact the Marion County Health Department to see what kind of help they can offer,” says Bumphus.
Bolin and Eaton agree that if they believed they had symptoms of COVID-19, they would go to the hospital immediately. Eaton says he has not received any help from the city dealing with the pandemic. He hasn’t received a blue Indy mask and doesn’t know where to get one.
According to Governor Eric Holcomb’s recent mask mandate, the homeless do not require face coverings, but they are still an important part of keeping safe from COVID-19. The state provides free masks to anyone who applies, but the application requires computer access and an address to ship the mask to – both of which are missing from many of the city’s homeless people.
Bumphus and Kerr say the best people can do to help the homeless population of Indianapolis is to support organizations like Wheeler Mission that provide services. Kerr said while the mission doesn’t want to stop people from giving money to people on the street if they want, he recommends handing out bottled water or care kits of packaged food instead.
“The best way people can help is to join and contribute to one of the organizations that serve the homeless,” says Kerr. “That way they know that their money is going to be used for what they want it to be used for.”