The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has created unique obstacles for people experiencing homelessness and the organizations that service them.
Health departments on the local, state and national levels have voiced the population of people experiencing homelessness is particularly vulnerable during this pandemic.
“Because many people who are homeless are older adults or have underlying medical conditions, they may also be at higher risk for severe disease than the general population,” the Center for Disease Control stated on its website. “Health departments and healthcare facilities should be aware that people who are homeless are a particularly vulnerable group. If possible, identifying non-congregate settings where those at highest risk can stay may help protect them from COVID-19.”
Kendel Arthur, outreach director of Sojourners Care Network in McArthur, said many of the organization’s measures have been changed in order to mitigate the possibility of viral exposure.
She noted that, for example, Sojourners is limiting the number of individuals who can live in congregate housing to adhere to physical distancing measures.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homelessness as “living in a place not meant for human habitation, in emergency shelter, in transitional housing, or … exiting an institution where [a person] temporarily resided.” This could mean sleeping on a park bench, at a shelter, in an abandoned house or even in a cave.
Arthur noted there are a few categories of homelessness. The first category focuses on individuals who are experiencing homelessness in the literal sense. Often these individuals have a primary nighttime residence, but it’s a residence that isn’t fit for human habitation or is a transitional living setting, such as a homeless shelter.
The second category is geared toward those who are at a high-risk of experiencing homelessness. Arthur noted people who fall under this category are often residents of an apartment or house that were given their 14-days notice to vacate. Next, the third category is broad, and people in this category are typically unaccompanied youth under the age of 25. They often have living situations that are “unstable,” having to move residences often.
The final category focuses on individuals who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence.
Arthur noted the youth that Sojourners Care Network services fall under the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness: “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”
HUD uses a point-in-time (PIT) system to determine the homeless population. This includes both “sheltered” and “unsheltered” people — those staying in transitional housing or in shelters compared to people sleeping in a tent in the woods. During the 2017 PIT Count night, 22 percent of the sheltered population was aged 0-25; the same age group made up 18 percent of the unsheltered population that night.
However, this data can never be perfect in a rural area. In larger cities, people can be counted on the streets, in alleys and in shelters. In the county with one of the largest forests in Ohio, numerous abandoned mines and a plentitude of streams and lakes, it can be difficult to get a definite number of people who are experiencing homelessness.
Arthur noted there are many outlying differences between experiencing homelessness in urban settings and experiencing homelessness in rural areas. People experiencing homelessness in rural settings often camp by themselves, couch surf or stay in motels: ultimately, people experiencing homelessness in rural communities don’t often congregate in “camps” typical in urban areas.
“If you go to any of the urban centers and ask where homelessness camps or gatherings are, they tell you,” Arthur said. She also said people in rural areas who are experiencing homelessness have more difficulty accessing shelters, sometimes having to travel an hour or more to locate one.
There are no homeless shelters in Vinton County, Arthur said, and the nearest traditional homeless shelter, Timothy House, is in Athens County. Others are located in Jackson County and in Chillicothe.
Looking forward, Arthur said many families, those at-risk of homelessness or not, are voicing concerns over summer food insecurity. Sojourners is implementing creative solutions to better service the area. For example, the non-profit has been giving away food and hygiene packs and gas vouchers. In addition, Sojourners has also funded bus ticket purchases for youth who are at-risk of homelessness, allowing them to travel to a relative who is in a stable and safe living environment.
During the pandemic, Arthur said that her organization has been relatively stable, not necessarily seeing a rise in calls from people in the area in need of resources. She did note fewer calls that are classified as Category 1 instances.
“We’re trying to be proactive,” Arthur said. “But it really depends on state and federal guidelines.”