Stay at Home. That was the order from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s office that went into effect in mid-March 2020. No one is immune to the effects of that crucial order or the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the shelter-in-place restrictions – including people experiencing homelessness. Already vulnerable to a number of health risks, the homeless population is highly susceptible to contracting and spreading the virus due to overcrowded shelters, lack of basic resources, poor access to healthcare, transient lifestyles, and several additional factors.
Over the past couple months organizations that assist Northeast Ohio’s homeless have continually adapted to meet recommendations by the CDC while continuing to care for the community’s most vulnerable.
The City Mission is one such organization working to create safe spaces for people experiencing homelessness. 2020 marks their 110th year of service to the community, meaning they have weathered several global crises: world wars, the Great Depression, societal changes, and many other historical events that changed the fabric of America.
Today they shelter approximately 260 men, women, and children every night through their Laura’s Home Women’s Crisis Center and Crossroads Men’s Crisis Center programs. While their regular work involves creating individualized, comprehensive programs to assist clients in building their stabilized and independent future, they have needed to adjust their routine to keep staff and clients safe.
“Our primary focus right now is keeping our doors open and providing a safe place of refuge for the men, women and children who depend upon us to care for them,” says CEO Rich Trickel. “Normal programming has been suspended; our priority is on building maintenance and client care.”
Challenges and Changes
This change of pace is a challenge for employees working to care for people who have already experienced deep trauma and are now faced with the anxiety induced by the pandemic. At both Laura’s Home and Crossroads this unfortunately means discontinuing program coursework so that families and individuals can maintain social distance. Volunteer activities have been suspended, and community services such as addiction counseling have been limited to virtual access only. Other major changes include chapel and mealtimes being split into smaller group sizes, and clients have been asked to step up and work together with Mission employees to maintain a clean and healthy environment.
Dominic Verdell, Crossroads Program Manager, relates that the coronavirus has been a mental and emotional struggle for men.
“This week marks the program conclusion for 8 graduates who will not be able to participate in our graduation ceremony, which is a disappointment,” he said. “However, while anxiety is creeping up, our men have been patient with one another and accommodating to programming changes and uncertainty.”
For the Laura’s Home staff, keeping children and students engaged and on campus brings an entirely different set of challenges. Christina Hahn, Family Ministries Coordinator at The City Mission shares that, “The most challenging part of the daily changes has been coming up with creative ways to social distance but still get a chance to daily connect with the children and youth.” Continued socialization is critical for children who have experienced homelessness and are much more likely to have already fallen behind in cognitive and behavioral development.
Because several of the children in their care have existing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), the staff at Laura’s Home has also been working hard to ensure that moms are equipped and empowered to “homeschool” their children during this time. Hahn says, “We are providing families with educational toys and games that have been donated by the community and making sure we are available to help if they have questions.”
Michael Hahn, Laura’s Home Program Manager, says that these efforts are paying off.
“Many of the women and families have been understanding and are often appreciative of how serious we are taking this current health crisis,” he said.
However, The City Mission sees a long road ahead for their staff and guests as the virus continues to impact their services. “There are many ladies who feel disheartened as the progress slows on their established goals for their time at Laura’s Home. We have done our best to encourage and look toward creative solutions to still best serve our women and children.”
Seeing the Positives
Despite the challenges and changes, both programs are finding creative ways to support their clients and are in turn seeing clients take initiative to support one another. At Crossroads, men are finding common ground in rewatching Game 7 of the Cavs NBA Finals, competing at a distance by playing cornhole, and even forming small support groups.
“I have been working with a client who has asked to start a small bible study group with four or five other clients during the week,” Verdell says while smiling. “One of our case managers is creating a small support group on coping with stress in difficult times. These are opportunities that likely wouldn’t have spun up without a crisis like this.”
Christina Hahn’s team is helping families and single women get out and active while practicing social distance too. Each day they are hosting floor parties and a daily craft, which have both been a huge hit. Hahn says, “It seems to brighten everyone’s days – even staff! After the floor dance party last week one mom came up with a huge smile on her face and said ‘Ah, I needed this!’ It’s so great to see them laughing and having fun.”
The Community’s Response
Thankfully, The City Mission has not yet faced the same financial hardship that many other nonprofits have experienced amid the pandemic. During this time of staying at home, it seems that more community members are remembering those who have no home to stay in.
“The Cleveland community is incredibly philanthropic and very responsive,” Trickel shares. “I’m grateful for the many who are following our posts and responding – buying supplies, sending extra financial gifts, and posting words of encouragement.”
The need for financial gifts remains great. The City Mission now sanitizes all of their facilities four times a day in order to prevent any potential spread of COVID-19. That adds up to an extra $1,400 of unbudgeted cost in cleaning supplies each week. Depending on how long the pandemic continues, this will place a significant financial burden on the Mission, which is funded entirely by private donations.
Right now, it is impossible to know what the repercussions of COVID-19 will look like, but it is clear they will last far beyond this month. The Mission is proceeding cautiously as the financial and human impact of the virus continues to reveal itself throughout the rest of 2020. Michael Hahn encourages the community not to forget the homeless after the immediate hype is over. “We need the continual thoughts and prayers of our community. At this time of serving an extremely vulnerable population there are many unforeseen financial hurdles we are facing and any support both materially and financially is extremely needed right now.” The truth is that the biggest need for The City Mission’s services might be yet to come as many Americans face an uncertain economy and reel from job losses.
Trickel sees this unprecedented pandemic as part of The City Mission’s 110-year legacy and is undaunted by the challenges that are sure to come. He says, “We are learning lessons daily that will help us not only navigate the present crisis, but also improve our normal operating protocols. It’s difficult to anticipate the long-term impact, but we’ve negotiated difficult circumstances before, we’ll do it again, and we’ll continue to serve the many men, women and children who need our help.”