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Article published in the October 2020 edition of Bham Family (bhamfamily.com)
Valuing the vulnerable during a pandemic
By Avery Rhodes | Executive Director, Community on the Rise
Updated Mar 21, 7:53 PM; Posted Mar 21, 7:49 PM
Walking through George Ward Park, I scan the paths for a familiar face. Most of the people I see are walking their dogs, playing tennis, or lounging in the grass. I am looking for the man reading a book, the one who admires Carl Sagan, the one who is homeless.
When tiny petals from the red buds begin dancing through the wind, we finally spot one another. Relief sweeps over me. It’s been days since I’ve been able to track down this friend, and I’m just glad to see that he is OK.
Since COVID-19 made social-distancing and shutdowns the operative language of our health and survival, the program that I normally run daily, Community on the Rise (a partnership with Church of the Reconciler) has had to close its doors. Sending our particularly vulnerable homeless community away from our daily work building trust, empowerment, and healing was devastating, but we knew we had to do it.
Our daily support groups and therapeutic talk sessions are the antithesis of social distance: we sit close to one another in a circle, telling stories, trying our hand at art therapy, sometimes raising our voices in impassioned persuasion, other times lowering them as tears trickle down our cheeks. We squint our eyes side-by-side at a computer screen while studying job classifieds and typing resumes.
We word emails to resource providers and then edit and re-edit them before hitting send, our fingers taking turns typing on the same keys. We hold each other’s hands and sanctify the moments we have together with affirmation and self-worth, pronouncements that we are capable, strong, and survivors. I did not fully appreciate how necessary these intensely personal and authentic moments in relationship with this community had come to mean to me – how these people, often regarded as pariahs, were pouring the ingredients of growth, like fresh earth and water, into my own soul – until it all had to be abruptly ended. When Community, the word we celebrate each day, became the definition of what we cannot in good conscience do, it shook us all.
My friend in the park is chatty, as always, and managing. He has recently completed an assessment, interview, and been referred for housing, but all that is on hold now. It is rougher out there than usual, he tells me, and I know it. As the days have passed, public places, like libraries, have had to close, cutting off a vital resource for hand-washing and using the bathroom. Our incredible shelters have had to shut their doors to keep their current residents inside and safe, and that means limiting other services they normally provide, like meals to anyone experiencing homelessness, as well as showers.
Other closures have further restricted laundry services, phone-charging capabilities, and access to communication channels like Wi-Fi and the internet. This is not to say that those who provide service to the homeless community have not been working tirelessly to resolve these issues: many have become partners and are working together to share information and do street outreach, distributing supplies in small teams to different locations where we know our community members to be, in an attempt to cut down on larger gatherings of people.
Several shelters and churches are flexing and bending to continue offering meals outside for people on the streets to pick up, and this effort is in addition to the extra strenuous work they are already doing inside.
A communion of compassionate people who did not previously work together comes as an unexpected gift in crazy times, allowing us the opportunity to create partnerships for our work alongside the homeless community in the future.
A kitchen of strangers ramping up our organizational prowess while bowed over paper sacks, swaying to music ranging from Luke Bryan to the Talking Heads, discussing which routes to take from the advice of a currently homeless community member who knows every place to look, and reminding one another to wash our hands, is not a scene I will soon forget.
And yet, even as our makeshift team hustles to prep paper bags and create distribution routes, we worry and wonder about the balance: people must have access to the basic necessities, but at what cost to their health? Are we potentially exposing already vulnerable people to a virus that one of us does not yet know we have? Or is the alternative of leaving people in dire need during times of restricted access the worse outcome? It is truly hard to know the answer.
Each day when I hit the streets to distribute supplies, I sound the alarm bell. We talk about taking this virus very seriously. I inform my friends experiencing homelessness that the city has erected sinks in Kelly Ingram and Linn Parks. I tell them that there is a list of COVID-19 symptoms typed up by friends at One Roof tucked inside the paper sacks provided by Be a Blessing Birmingham and Food for Our Journey.
I sound the alarm bell and remind my friends that they are doubly at risk of exposure because they do not have the luxury of shelter. To my community member who was just released from the hospital due to another bout of pancreatitis, I lock my eyes and level on him what he calls “real talk.” “Please,” I beg, “I am worried about you and your health. If you get sick, I am afraid you will get very sick.” Underlying medical conditions are pretty par for the course amongst the homeless community, again, adding to their potential for aggravated negative health outcomes from COVID-19. My friend vows to me that he will take the precautions he can. He borrows a phone from one person or another each day to check in and let me know where I can find him, and to tell me how he is feeling.
Now allow me to sound the alarm bell for you. As coronavirus bears down on our city and state, we need to recognize and manage the role that people experiencing homelessness are very likely to inadvertently play. Without the ability to shelter or consistently practice hand-washing and sanitizing, it is very plausible that our homeless community will eventually infect one another and others. Whether or not we think often or at all about the plight and lives of those who live homeless, we should recognize the potential catastrophe that their limited resources may lead to for everyone.
We need to be taking measures to ensure their safety: creating emergency shelters, as has been done in other states, providing more hand-washing and sanitizing access, setting up more testing sites and screenings for people with limited and no transportation, giving more information about what is at stake. As a citizenry and government, we need to seriously consider what quarantine for someone who is living on the streets and sick with COVID-19 needs to look like. Our homeless population in Birmingham is small, as compared to other places, and with proper funding, we can address this mounting dilemma.
There is no doubt that our city, state, and country are working hard to manage as the coronavirus situation changes, and that situation, as we all know, has been rapid-fire in its evolution.
We have taken unprecedented measures to try and “flatten the curve” of coronavirus, and I am so grateful for the myriad ways in which both the public and private sectors are racing to action for the benefit of our health and well-being. I have been part of a conference call in which Mayor Woodfin joined in to listen to the concerns of homeless continuum of care providers, and I recognize that this call was likely one of hundreds he has listened to as people across different spectrums and industries have voiced their perspectives. There is a stimulus package being debated in the halls of Congress, and, if those experiencing homelessness are included, major steps can be taken to quell the coming storm.
Therefore, I write not to launch a critique of any efforts, but rather to post an addendum to those ongoing conversations and strategies: a sounding bell of advocacy for those who we may not have noticed.
In the swirling winds of red buds, behind the gas stations on 3rd Avenue, and under the bridges, the people I claim as part of my community wait with uncertainty. They are indeed at risk during this contagion. They are indeed a vector of potential viral spread, exposed as they are, and they should absolutely be on our minds. A few weeks ago, back in the cozy space we claim as our Community Classroom, we had a lively conversation about faith, and what it looked like to each of us.
“Maybe sometimes, it doesn’t matter so much who we believe the messenger is,” one member of our circle, who is artistically talented and cherishes deep conversation, offered. “Maybe the real question is, ‘Did you get the message?’" We sat silent momentarily, taking in the fresh breath of the moment. We decided right then that we got the message, and for us, it meant that no matter how differently packaged it may be, that message is to love one another and provide a sense of mutual belonging.
This message of love and belonging is coming at us in waves from every direction as communities band together in the midst of this crisis. Let’s work together to ensure that this message reverberates all the way into our homeless community as well, and echoes back to us with the important clarity of action steps that we must take to benefit everyone’s future, including the most vulnerable.