By Heather Graves
BROWN COUNTY – Homelessness has been a struggle in Brown County, one often dealt with in the shadows.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, putting extra strain on an already vulnerable population.
“There has been a dramatic increase in the number of community members needing help,” said Terri Refsguard, New Community Shelter executive director. “We (the community) now can see the homeless population more visible. Before COVID, the homeless population could go into the library and other public places, making them invisible. Now, due to closures, or strict number limitations for businesses, the homeless population is now more concentrated in the public view.”
When the state issued a safer at home order in the spring, it left many without paychecks and brought many services to a halt.
That not only affected those already experiencing homelessness, but also those struggling for the first time.
“COVID has had an effect on those that were already experiencing homelessness in that it has forced local services providers to adapt their service delivery models,” said Rashad Cobb, community engagement program officer for the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation. “It has also made homelessness a real issue for some members of the community that may have never been confronted with the possibility of being homeless.”
This has been evident at St. John’s Homeless Shelter as case managers saw an increase in people newly homeless, seeking help for the first time in their lives.
“This is not typical, especially for the summer months,” said Alexa Priddy, director of community engagement. “We know that as the temperatures continue to decrease, people who may be living in vehicles or at parks will need safe shelter, and we are preparing to meet that need.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, area shelters have grappled with the monumental challenge of increasing need, and the need for increasing social distancing to reduce the risk of spread.
St. John’s and New Community Shelter have both had to change the way they do things because of COVID-19.
Priddy said the last eight months have been nothing short of a roller coaster for St. John’s.
When the state issued a safer-at-home order in March, she said the growing need prompted St. John’s to begin operating two 24-hour shelters – which helped with social distancing and mitigating community spread.
“By expanding our shelter services, we provided continuous care of those vulnerable adults who would otherwise be on the streets during this health crisis,” Priddy said.
The shelter transitioned yet again in June, utilizing both its Summer Safe Sleep model and motel vouchers while also reopening its daytime resource centers – The Micah Center and Wellspring.
The New Community Shelter has experienced similar struggles.
“There has been a dramatic increase in the number of community members needing our help,” Refsguard said. “The New Community Shelter has always made serving Brown County residents our priority, and unfortunately, we have not seen a decline in the number of people experiencing homelessness.”
With social distancing key in stopping the spread, communal living causes issues.
“Trying to stay 6 feet apart at all times is virtually impossible,” Refsguard said. “We are doing what we can, so are the residents, but 24/7, 6 feet apart just isn’t doable or realistic.”
Refsguard said those struggles extend outside shelter walls.
“Since people are trying to social distance from one another, people who usually couch surf may not be able to anymore, and are now more reliant on the shelters for support,” she said.
Both shelters have put a focus on following all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations – requiring masks, social distancing, heightened hand sanitization and daily temperature checks for all staff, guests and volunteers.
“We have always been serious about cleanliness and safe health practices, so the transition wasn’t hard for the shelter to continue going above and beyond,” Refsguard said.
New Community Shelter has been able to stay COVID-free.
St. John’s was briefly affected, but because of safety procedures, was able to bounce back quickly.
“When the virus did eventually hit our shelter, we were prepared,” Priddy said. “We quarantined staff and guests from the affected location and spread out other staff to cover the need. Separating our staff and guests into two groups and sites proved to be invaluable to us being able to sustain our services throughout the pandemic shutdown.”
Priddy said there is always the concern of community spread in a congregate living environment, but the shelter is taking every precaution necessary.
“We are always looking for ways to mitigate that,” Priddy said. “We also have a guest population that is at high risk for COVID. For our staff, we worry about a guest getting sick and what that could mean for that person. We are one big family, and when one person is down, we all are. We have a shared responsibility to care for one another, and our number one priority is to keep everyone healthy and safe.”
Mental health affects
The challenges aren’t limited to only an increased need for shelter.
Priddy said the pandemic is taking an emotional toll on the community as well.
“We’ve seen more people experiencing depression and anxiety connected to job loss, family separation and other factors,” she said.
Refsguard echoed Priddy’s concerns.
“Many in the homeless community also suffer from mental illness, and this pandemic has caused issues associated with fear, panic and paranoia,” she said. “This is an awful time for everyone, let alone someone who is struggling with mental health.”
Those suffering from alcohol and drug issues are also feeling added stress.
“Isolation, no in-person support meetings, depression, self-medication/distraction and not being able to see an in-person counselor have caused people to relapse,” Refsguard said. “That, in turn, causes people to lose their job, and their homes.”
The pandemic also forced the New Community Shelter to quickly restructure its meal program.
“We immediately started offering meals to-go to members of our community versus eating in our dining room,” Refsguard said.
To protect all involved, the shelter suspended the use of volunteers, putting all the work on the shoulders of staff.
“This presented a big challenge as we now had to provide, prepare and serve all of the meals with our staff,” she said. “This affected our budget greatly as we had to purchase more food and supplies. We also were over in our staffing budget because it was basically all hands on deck.”
Refsguard said the increased need for the community meal program was like nothing she’s ever seen before.
“From March 16 to Aug. 31 we have served 76,120 meals, compared to 52,677 meals during that same timeframe in 2019,” she said. “In our history, we have never missed a meal or turned anyone away from lack of food, and we don’t intend for that to change.”
Residents at both shelters have struggled with the lack of, or limited, options for transportation.
“Transportation to jobs had been huge, especially when bus service in Green Bay was stopped or limited in the spring and summer,” Priddy said. “We are seeing that get better now, and we welcome any donations of bus passes to help our guests get to medical appointments and maintain their employment. A common misperception is that people experiencing homelessness aren’t working, and that’s just not true.”
The uncertainty of what’s coming brings its own challenges.
“We are prepared for the worst and hope for the best,” Refsguard said. “If they are saying we haven’t even seen a second wave, that really scares us. The numbers are awful now. We can’t imagine when you add in the common cold, RSV, influenza. Most of our population has some sort of criteria that makes them more susceptible to these illnesses. We are concerned about the need as evictions continue to happen.”
Staffing is also a concern.
“We can see how one or two exposures can interrupt every aspect of how every department flows,” she said. “We are helping as many people as we can, but at the end of the day, we cannot choose what people are going to do. Some people do not want to come to the shelter because of our rules. That is their choice. New Community Shelter is a programming shelter, and we help people help themselves, but only if they want to help themselves.”
St. John’s and New Community have slowly begun inviting volunteers back.
“Early on, we were also forced to temporarily suspend our volunteer program to help keep volunteers safe and social distance,” Priddy said. “We are slowly opening our volunteer program up again, and we welcome new volunteers looking to serve.”
It is unknown if this will be disrupted again.
St. John’s shelter season starts Nov. 1, and while the needs are unknown at this point, Priddy said they are planning for another site.
“We will have two shelter sites in order to social distance and maintain the safety standards we have in place while also never turning anyone away due to capacity,” Priddy said. “We anticipate that this will be another busy shelter season with record numbers, and we appreciate any help the community can give.”
Localized homeless initiative
The Greater Green Bay Community Foundation, Brown County United Way, City of Green Bay, Brown County and the Brown County Homeless and Housing Coalition have teamed up for a community-wide effort to prevent and end homelessness in Brown County.
“This is a collaborative effort that will see (all of us) come together to leverage local and national resources to address the issue of homelessness and supportive housing in our community,” Cobb said. “Our community is full of committed individuals that bring a wealth of knowledge and a strong desire to address the issue.”
Cobb will head up the work with support from the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), a national consultant on homelessness and housing solutions.
“In this role I will work to connect CSH to the appropriate people, data and entities that will assist them in designing a solution to homelessness,” he said. “The goal is to prevent and end homelessness. We are all at the table because this is a real issue and it is an issue that we feel like we can address in our community. This issue is important because people’s lives and well-being are at stake. These individuals are someone’s family member, friend, neighbor or a co-worker, and each and every single one of them deserve to have a community fighting as best it can to support them on their individual journey.”