The coronavirus is wreaking havoc on nearly every aspect of life. And people who lack stable housing or food supplies are among the most vulnerable.
It’s lunchtime at St. Margaret’s House in South Bend, Ind. Barbecue pulled pork sandwiches and baked beans are on the menu.
Women walk past tables set up outside with fruit, pretzel bread, and even whole pies. They’re supposed to point to what they want, and not touch the food, but some have a hard time remembering that new rule.
St. Margaret’s House provides meals to women and children struggling with poverty. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, people would gather inside to eat. Now, food is served take-out style to avoid spreading the virus.
“I’m terrified," says Teresa Anderson, who has a compromised immune system. "I’m out of masks currently.
“I’ve decided not to buy a two-week bus pass that I normally buy. I’m not supposed to be doing certain things, but I’m walking to and from St. Margaret’s,” she said.
Anderson and roughly 60 other women still come each day to get a hot meal. About a quarter of them have no stable housing.
Executive Director Kathy Schneider recognizes the challenges everyone faces, but she says people struggling with poverty and homelessness face those challenges tenfold. “When [officials] say to quarantine, to shelter in place, they have no place to shelter and that’s the problem.”
Schneider is right. To slow the spread of COVID-19 health officials recommend staying at home and social distancing. But that’s not possible for everyone.
“We have this mobile group of people who could become infected at any time and they’re kind of moving together and that makes them vulnerable," Schneider says. "A lot of those people have health issues already. So catching the virus for them is very dangerous.”
Sarah Kroeger of the University of Notre Dame has researched the public health implications of homelessness.
“If you’re sleeping in a different place each night, if you don’t have access to clean water or fresh food, it’s going to exacerbate these underlying health issues,” she says.
Cities across the United States face the same problem. According to news reports, Los Angeles lined up trailers for the homeless to isolate and New York City converted a shelter into an isolation facility. Indianapolis created an outreach team and is placing hand-washing stations downtown.
Kroeger says this could be a step in the right direction. “[O]ne of the biggest challenges is homeless people don’t have regular access to a place where they can wash their hands. Typically what they make use of are restaurants, grocery stores, or libraries and a lot of these locations have closed to the general public."
As the crisis escalates, St. Margaret’s wants to stay open to help.
Kitchen manager Samantha Peck said food should be the last thing someone needs to worry about. “At this time, nutrition is so important. Getting a good meal in could boost somebody’s immune system just that little bit extra.”
Schneider agrees, but recognizes that the virus could change things.
“If one of us comes down with this I’m sure we’re all going to have to self-quarantine. But as long as we can stay healthy we’re going to try and keep our doors open,” she says.
Indiana wants food pantries to stay open. The state is calling on anyone who does not fall into a vulnerable population to volunteer.
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.