Jennifer spent the first part of the COVID-19 pandemic trying to find a shelter that would take her in — if not to sleep, maybe just to eat.
“It caused me a lot of stress trying to find a shelter that would feed me and give me a place to stay,” said Jennifer, a woman experiencing homelessness in Norman.
When the pandemic hit, unlike some people, Jennifer had nowhere to turn.
“I lost my husband and my son a while back, and so the only people I had that would help me through the pandemic are these people right here,” Jennifer said, motioning to her friends at Food & Shelter. “But a lot of times we couldn’t see one another, especially if they had the virus.”
Jennifer found her solace at Food & Shelter.
“I’m very, very grateful for a place like Food & Shelter,” Jennifer said. “Before I got this job I was on the street with nowhere to go.”
Throughout the pandemic, Food & Shelter has kept its doors open to help those most in need, said April Heiple, executive director of Food & Shelter. The organization’s shelter has only had one case of COVID throughout the pandemic, Heiple said.
“Our shelter is really set up to support isolation and sheltering in place,” she said. “So, within the shelter system, we really didn’t have to do much different at all — except our case workers worked mostly over the phone.”
When people within Norman’s homeless community would test positive for COVID-19, Heiple and Food & Shelter would buy motel rooms for weeks at a time just so they could have somewhere to comfortably isolate themselves.
The hardest aspect of COVID-19 for the homeless community is that now they not only have to survive homelessness, but a deadly pandemic, Heiple said.
“They’re kind of living within trying to survive homelessness and also trying to survive COVID,” she said. “And so their kind of thought process just in general is ‘I can’t worry about that, I have to survive, I have to eat, I have to be able to have some way I can get access to food,’ so, I’ve heard that from a lot of people.”
When the pandemic first hit and nobody knew what to expect, shelters had to lower their numbers in order to take precautions. This added a whole new level of stress on top of the stress of homelessness, Jennifer said.
“A lot of people just gave up,” she said. “I know I did.”
The homeless population is one of the most susceptible to COVID-19, living in close proximity to one another outside and often sharing cigarettes, beverages and food. Yet many people view them as almost immune to the virus.
“One of the things people say is, ‘oh, they’re outside all the time, so they’re probably more immune,’” Heiple said. “And you know because they live in a communal environment … they’re very susceptible to the spread of any kind of virus, especially this very contagious one.”
The comorbidities that come along with living outside for a long time also make those experiencing homelessness more susceptible to COVID-19 and its deadly effects, she said.
“Because people who — especially those who’ve been homeless a long time — often have significant and untreated health issues, my worry is they’re extremely vulnerable,” Heiple said. “If it starts to really spread through our community, they can be very, very vulnerable.”
COVID-19 brought a sense of loneliness to people who are homeless, especially if they contracted COVID, Heiple said.
“It’s very difficult, when somebody gets COVID, to tell them they can’t come here when this is the only place they can really come to and eat,” Heiple said. “We have a man who we put in a motel who is positive for COVID and I called him yesterday to check in and he just said ‘I’m just so lonely.’ These folks here are his family, and he told me he hadn’t been this alone in a long time.”
Heiple believes 2020 taught everyone the value of a home and the value and importance of everyone having a place to call their own.
“When something like this happens — and it probably won’t be the last time something like this does happen — people really need a place to live,” Heiple said. “I’ve always [expressed] and felt great pain that we have people in our community who don’t have homes, it really causes me a really great concern that in this community there are people who will sleep outside tonight in the cold and also be so vulnerable.”
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Heiple said she hopes people take a hard look at providing more affordable housing for people and actually taking action on the matter rather than just speaking about it.
The City of Norman has allocated a portion of its Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) act funds to rent and utility assistance during the pandemic. Norman has also opened up a warming shelter within the city where people who are homeless can come and spend the night, so they aren’t sleeping on the streets.
“I hope that we can start to take some steps forward and start really investing in places for people to live, like affordable housing and those kinds of things that can make our efforts to dramatically reduce the number of people sleeping outside possible,” she said. “That’s kind of the goal is, we want to get as many people off the streets as possible. We just need our community, our city, our state and our federal government to believe that [it’s] the right thing to do.”