Stay-at-home orders create crisis for those without home

Widespread closures spell danger for people living on the streets


Brandy Sims just wants to take a shower.

“A woman wants to keep clean,” said Sims, 41. “I'd go without food if I could just wash my hair.”

She and her husband have been sleeping in their car beside the South Platte River, in a makeshift camp of tarp-draped RVs, for the past couple weeks. Sims and her husband wound up homeless after a series of bad turns, culminating in car repairs that left them broke.

“We could take showers at the rec center, but it's closed,” Sims said as her husband tinkered with the car's broken heater. “So are the churches. We could freshen up at the library or McDonald's, but that's gone too.”

With the vast majority of public amenities shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, people living on the streets have seen their meager support systems dwindle.

With stores and restaurants shut, access to bathrooms is scarce. Without libraries, accessing the internet — where the vast majority of information about a world-shaking crisis is being disseminated — becomes difficult. Power outlets to charge cell phones are rare. Food pantries are overwhelmed. Many day and overnight shelters are closed.

“A stay-at-home order is hard to deal with when you don't have a home,” Sims said.

'We're grieving that we can't open'

The situation is heartbreaking to groups who provide services to people with nowhere else to go.

“We're grieving that we can't open,” said LynnAnn Huizingh, the executive director of the Severe Weather Shelter Network. The group partners with churches in the Denver suburbs to shelter unhoused people on cold nights, providing a hot meal, companionship, and a warm, dry place to sleep.

But many of the group's volunteers are over 50 and at greater risk from the virus, and partner churches are closed. When a late-winter squall blew in during the first week of widespread closures, the network was unable to open shelters to the multitudes it normally serves.

Instead, volunteers held outreach events, handing out emergency kits with handwarmers, socks, bus tickets, blankets and tarps.

“Our mission is to keep people from freezing to death,” Huizingh said. “Our guests told us, `We've survived worse than this. We'll see you on the flip side.' The grace and understanding we received was so humbling.”

Other lifelines are all but closed. Giving Heart in Englewood, a day shelter that provides connections to a wide variety of services, shut its doors in efforts to maintain social distancing, according to a voicemail on the center's hotline, though mail service for people with no fixed address continues — which may prove essential for people to receive assistance checks in coming weeks.

One of the few shelter networks still operating is HAAT Force, which offers motel vouchers, generally reserved for homeless families and people with disabilities. 

"The current need is about double what we can address," said Bonnie DeHart, who is on HAAT Force's board. "And that's right now. We don't know what's coming."

The group is getting calls from people living in motels who are facing eviction after sudden job losses, DeHart said. 

"We're trying to help as many as we can," she said. "For a lot of our folks, they'll die if they're outside."

'Where do you want me to wash my hands?'

Other groups are doing their best to adapt. Café 180, a pay-what-you-can restaurant in Englewood that often serves people living on the street, is handing out grab-and-go meals.

So is Littleton's GraceFull Café, another pay-what-you-can restaurant that's become a hub of compassion and dignity for people without homes.

Though the dining room is closed, GraceFull owner Heather Greenwood is still doing her best for her guests, letting them use the restaurant's bathroom and phone.

“Even though we can't sit down with them over a meal, we can be someone in their lives who cares about them,” Greenwood said while rolling out pie crusts. “Our friends on the street are survivors beyond anything I'm capable of. It's humbling to hear their gratitude through all this.”

GraceFull's guests say the café is a lifesaver.

“We'd be out of luck if it weren't for this place,” said Bernard Arnold, who said he's lived on the street for the last several years, stymied by high housing costs and family trouble. “People look at us bad enough as-is, and it's getting harder to stay clean. I'm not trying to spread this thing, but where do you want me to wash my hands?”

Arnold said he and others once found mutual aid and a sense of camaraderie in tent camps, but those have mostly been dispersed in the Littleton and Englewood areas in recent months, making it harder to look after vulnerable companions. Sometimes he and friends scrape together enough for a motel room, but owners are wary about renting rooms to multiple people — even more so in the time of social distancing.

With reduced economic activity and many businesses closed indefinitely, day labor is less fruitful. Even panhandling is drying up as streets empty.

“Not all of us are evil drug addicts,” said Arnold's friend Greg Langenderfer. “We're doing the same thing everyone else is: our best to get through this.”

'Rise up and serve our neighbors in need'

Local governments have a role to play, said Englewood City Councilmember Joe Anderson, who has long been involved with homeless outreach groups. Local police agencies partner with AllHealth Network to provide counseling services, and Arapahoe County provides limited grants and funds to assist people seeking housing.

But governments are cash-strapped, Anderson said, and likely will become even more so amid plunging tax revenue and skyrocketing demands on public assistance.

“Governments are dependent on nonprofits and churches to help people without homes,” Anderson said. “We're doing our best, by trying to coordinate with agencies, and distributing lists of resources. It's a challenge.”

The entire community needs to mobilize to save its most vulnerable members, said Mike Sandgren, who heads Change the Trend, a network of nonprofits in the south metro area.

“We need people to step up, to donate to agencies that are helping, and also to donate hygiene items like hand soap, hand sanitizer and toilet paper,” Sandgren said. “We as a community have an opportunity to rise up and serve our neighbors in need. If you've been hoarding supplies, consider giving some of your stockpiles to people who can't buy in bulk.”

'Every one of us is at risk'

Even farther from Denver, the pandemic may be pushing some people closer to homelessness, said Jenny Follmer, the deputy director of the Help and Hope Center, which provides an array of services to people in poverty in Douglas and Elbert counties.

“So many of us are one job loss, one illness, one divorce away from losing our homes,” Follmer said. “We haven't even felt the full impact of this yet. People haven't had to pay the next round of bills yet. We're deeply concerned.”

The center's food pantry is running low, Follmer said, as grocery stores and restaurants increasingly have nothing to donate.

“I want people to realize every one of us is at risk,” Follmer said. “Maybe now people won't be so quick to judge. How are we going to take care of everyone who needs serious help? It's going to take more than a village. It's going to take a country.”


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