Who's caring for Memphis' homeless as COVID-19 spreads?

For people experiencing homelessness, survival has always been a struggle.

In Memphis, there are no free shelters, few places to practice personal hygiene, and limited medical and mental healthcare services.

As COVID-19 spreads across the Mid-South, people experiencing homelessness can't stay safer at home. They can't follow CDC guidelines for personal safety like frequent hand washing. 

Resources for people experiencing homelessness were already outpaced by their need. Now there are even fewer.

Many community spaces used for hot meals and fellowship are closed. Hand sanitizer and wipes were often distributed with other hygiene supplies alongside meals but supplies are virtually non-existent. Public places where people can wash hands like libraries and community centers—now potentially life-saving essentials—are closed. Food pantries are under immense strain as more Memphians face food insecurity

Leaders of churches and local nonprofits that serve the people without stable housing are worried about clients' immediate survival. They're also concerned about all Memphians and how the city can contain the spread of a pandemic when a significant number of people can't shelter in place.

“The concern is that this virus will run through all our people who are homeless, killing some of them. But also, because these people are out and about on the streets, they’ll be facilitators for spreading the disease,” said Peter Gathje, founder and co-director of Manna House Memphis.

On April 6, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland did announce that his task force has secured 60 hotel rooms for women and families experiencing homelessness. They’re still working on shelters for the men, as well as more mobile testing for people without permanent residences.

Meanwhile, key service providers are doing everything they can to address critical needs. 

“We’ve had to cut back some of the things we do, and that’s very hard because the people we’re trying to serve are going to be harmed in the short-term,” said Gathje.

How Big is the Need?

Gathje said the exact number of people people experiencing homelessness in Memphis “is always a controversial number."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual Point-in-Time count—a single-night count of sheltered and unsheltered people who are experiencing homelessness in a certain community—seems “ridiculously low."

He said it often fails to include people outside of the center city and those who are in hiding, couch-surfing, or living in vehicles.

Memphis' official count usually falls between 500 and 1,000 people. Based on this work, Gathje believes that number is closer to 5,000 to 8,000 across the metro area.

How You Can Help

Tracy Burgess is director of development and communications for the Dorothy Day House. She said people across the Mid-South are asking how they can help Memphians who are homeless when they can’t physically volunteer.

Burgess and representatives of Manna House, the Community Alliance for the Homeless, and Baptist's Operation Outreach all said the best way to help is a financial donation of any size.

The organizations can pool donations to buy exactly what they need at a lower cost than standard retail prices. Donations of physical items also pose a contamination risk to staff and clients, furthering the need for monetary donations.

Burgess encourages people to call the nonprofit of their choice before dropping off any items.

Tamara Hendrix is the organizing coordinator for Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality or H.O.P.E. The organization's leaders and members are people who are currently experiencing or have formerly experienced homelessness.

Hendrix urged concerned Memphians to also use their voice to speak up for people experiencing homelessness, both now and post-COVID.

“Add your voice. We are advocates. We go down to city hall and try to talk to them about funding and the homeless in general,” she said. “We have to make sure that people are having the conversation ... often it’s a conversation that people don’t want to have.”

Click to donating to these critical organizations:
Dorothy Day House
Manna House
Community Alliance for the Homeless
Baptist Operation Outreach
David Clark and others collect donated clothing goods at Catholic Charities, 1325 Jefferson Avenue in March 2019. (Ziggy Mack)

WHo's Helping Now?

The Dorothy Day House
Dorothy Day House is a shelter for families that need a safe living environment. It's currently full.

Burgess said the nine families they're housing have many of the same challenges most families are currently facing.

“We have close to 20 kids who are home for the foreseeable future," said Burgess.

"We’re focused on making sure they have the educational resources they need and their parents are comfortable [with them]," she said. “We hope that we can encourage and motivate them while also trying to relieve their anxiety and answer their questions about [what's] going on."

Manna House 
Manna House Memphis is a nonprofit organization that usually offers basic services such as showers, weekly meals, hygiene items, coffee and hospitality to guests experiencing homelessness or economic challenges.

However, in Gathje’s recent post on his blog, Radical Hospitality, he describes a new, stark contrast in the organization’s current reality:

“Guests are no longer lingering at Manna House. They come, usually one-by-one, to get the meal on Monday night and the hygiene ‘hospitality bag’ on Thursday morning. There’s no waiting for their name to be called for showers. We are not doing showers right now. There’s no gathering for conversation around cups of coffee," he wrote. 

Gathje said Manna House bathrooms are still open. The hygiene bags have far fewer items. 

Community Alliance for the Homeless (CAFTH)
CAFTH updates its Coronavirus (COVID-19) Agency Status Updates list several times a week. The new page on the agency’s website serves as a roundup of services still available to residents without permanent shelter. It also includes each service provider’s volunteer and donation needs. The most in-demand items are hand sanitizer, bleach, thermometers, N95 masks, and cleaning supplies.

“A few times a week, we’re reaching out to all the providers we work with to get updates,” said Grant Ebbesmeyer, CAFTH's continuum of care coordinator. “Then we’re communicating with officials from the city and county to express what the needs are, just to keep the thought of people who are homeless and in need of services at the front of their minds.”

Ebbesmeyer is cautiously optimistic that the new CARES act will provide some relief, particularly around quarantining high-risk or COVID-positive individuals.

“We're hoping that at least a portion of that will arrive in 30 days, but HUD is still developing the formula to determine how much is going where, so we don't know how much we'll be getting here in Memphis yet," he said.

Baptist Operation Outreach
Baptist Operation Outreach, one of the providers on CAFTH’s list, is on the front lines of COVID test for people without permanent housing. They also treat basic medical needs.

The free mobile health clinic operates in partnership with Christ Community Health Services and Baptist Healthcare, but the clinic is no longer mobile under the current social distancing guidelines.

Related: "Newly opened health clinic provides free services to the homeless population of Memphis"

They're now provide free medical services through telehealth appointments or at Catholic Charities of West Tennessee at 1325 Jefferson Ave.

“We are receiving multiple phone calls daily from patients, and they are being addressed by nurses and physicians when they call. If they need medication, we’re making sure they’re able to get their medication,” said Janice Taylor, director of Baptist Operation Outreach.

“They’re treated the same way any patient would be as far as making sure they get quality healthcare.”
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Read more articles by Erinn Figg.

Erinn is a Memphis-based freelance writer with 11 years of experience as a beat journalist, columnist, editor and freelance writer for a variety of publications. Erinn is also an award-winning PR professional who has worked with local firms archer>malmo and Obsidian Public Relations. Contact Erinn and follow her on Twitter at @allcapsERINN.