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Shelters brace for double whammy of winter weather, COVID

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Anthony has been struggling with homelessness off and on for three years. A recovering addict with a criminal record, finding a stable job has been difficult. 

Before the pandemic, Anthony, whose last name is being withheld, would occasionally stay at local shelters. While he wasn’t fond of how “preachy” some shelters can be, it was an opportunity for a bed and a warm place to sleep. Since the beginning of the pandemic, however, Anthony hasn’t felt comfortable going to shelters.

“I’m really not tryna’ die out here,” Anthony, 31, said. “I don’t like sleeping downtown, but I can be by myself. You don’t know what kind of s*** other people have.”

As the days continue to get colder, though, more people are venturing into shelters rather than staying on the street. 

Steve Kerr, executive vice president of advancement for Wheeler Mission, said the shelter is currently providing beds to the number of people they would typically see in January, sparking concerns not just about an influx of people in need, but how Wheeler will meet the need in the midst of the pandemic. 

Wheeler has been working with city leaders and the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP) Indianapolis to modify its winter contingency plans for COVID-19. In the past, Wheeler used the gym floor or partnering churches if there weren’t enough beds. Social distancing guidelines, however, don’t allow for that. Instead, through the partnership with the city and CHIP, Wheeler is working with two local hotels to house men, women and children through March 31, 2021.

“The city has been an amazing leader in this,” Kerr said. “They’ve just done a phenomenal job. Between the city and CHIP, it’s made a world of difference.”

Matt Giffen, executive director of the Office of Public Health and Safety, said the city used funding from his department to cover the costs of 300 hotel rooms. 

“This is obviously, because of COVID, a uniquely challenging winter stacked on top of what is a struggle every single year,” Giffen said. “Not only are there plenty of people experiencing homelessness in this city, the logistics of providing shelter space that meets spacing requirements was a challenge.”

The 2020 Point-in-Time Count, conducted by CHIP and IUPUI’s Public Policy Institute, found 1,588 Marion County residents were experiencing homelessness in January. Of those individuals, 864 were Black. 

Conditions such as short distances between beds and limited bathrooms and sinks create a heightened risk for contracting the novel coronavirus, according to research conducted by the Congressional Research Service.

That’s why Kerr is thankful the city stepped in to help. Those housed in a hotel are encouraged to remain in the hotel room as much as possible to limit the spread of COVID-19. Hygiene items are provided at the site, and case management services are available to help find permanent housing. 

“Normally, hotel rooms are out of the question,” Kerr said. “But this year, because of the pandemic, we’re able to spread our guests out further to make sure we’re protecting them as best we can from the virus.” 

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper. 

For more information on finding shelter this winter, visit here.

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