Homeless Community Partners Rally to Support Our Most Vulnerable Neighbors
By Debbie Nelson
More than 2,450 homeless men, women and children are perhaps Greenville County’s most vulnerable during the Covid-19 outbreak. These members of our community have limited access to clean water and soap. In addition, quarantining and social distancing from those who may be infected with the virus is virtually impossible. Given these conditions, along with their limited resources, lack of adequate housing and compromised health, translates to a group at high risk to contract Covid-19.
In Greenville, more than 75 partner organizations have a history of working together to make homelessness brief and rare. This diverse coalition is needed now more than ever. Nonprofits, health systems, food providers, hotels and motels, law enforcement, local government, schools and churches are responding to the crisis by connecting and creatively finding solutions to ensure the safety of our homeless neighbors.
According to Susan McLarty, coordinator of the Greenville Homeless Alliance, “The concept of GHA was born out of a crisis that became known as “Tent City.” Collaboration with public and private partners has continued to increase from working together to develop uniquely Greenville solutions such as the Homeless Triangle Mediation and Motel Displacement Response Plan. Increased alignment of assets and resources has never been more critical.”
Jennifer Snow, executive director of Accountable Communities for Prisma Health, explained, “Providing access to care to those who may be or are infected by the coronavirus – including testing and temporary shelter for the homeless and housing-insecure community – is a priority for Prisma Health. Miracle Hill Ministries (MNM) and all of the partners involved have come together to develop a solution that will lead to a safer and healthier community; this is community-led innovation at its best.”
Many emergency shelters across the country have closed. Locally, MHM and the Salvation Army, which represent 77 percent of all available beds, are suffering but remain open and are stepping up to fill the gaps. “Miracle Hill’s newly appointed CEO, Ryan Duerk, has turned on a dime,” shared McLarty. Faced with the cancellation of the organization’s largest annual fundraiser, they created an online platform to help meet their target goal. These much-needed financial resources will provide homeless children and adults with food and shelter during Covid-19.
In addition, MHM has partnered with local health systems, governments and other community partners to open quarantine space at Greenville Rescue Mission. “Providing compassionate care is especially critical for those in our community who are the most vulnerable among us – individuals experiencing homelessness, both sheltered and unsheltered,” said Ryan. “This is a short-term solution to a problem that will be addressed by the creation of an external shelter and medical surge sites. Until that time, Miracle Hill will lovingly serve in this capacity while utilizing the cooperative efforts of all partners in this initiative.”
A local advocate for the homeless, Beth O’Brien, herself currently living unsheltered, recently contacted the Mayor’s office to share her first-hand account of the needs and concerns of people living outside. Beth spoke with GHA and shared information that led to GHA developing a flyer that is now being distributed. It gives basic information on Covid-19, how to social distance and what to do if you become sick while living outside. It also lists vital resources such as locations for public bathrooms, handwashing stations, water and transportation. It further includes updated information on the local organizations that are providing shelter, food and healthcare during Covid-19. Beth explained, “All disseminated information helps as people are being told to leave public property. Cops say they don’t know where we should go, but we need to move on.”
Hunger and food insecurity have grown exponentially over the past several weeks. Thanks to the efforts of Project Host’s eight employees, 150 people receive bagged meals daily from the soup kitchen located at 525 S. Academy Street and an additional 200 people each week through Hostmobile. The City of Greenville has installed a hand washing station outside of Project Host. According to Paulette Dunn, the executive director of Project Host, “Our biggest concern is the increasing numbers. In the past we would typically feed 75 a day. Now we are serving more than double the people. Many are recently unemployed and may have never stood in a food line before.”
Two well-known community agencies that serve people experiencing homelessness, United Ministries and Triune Mercy Center, have stepped forward as well. They are screening families, couples, and singles who have lost their jobs and are faced with losing their motel rooms, which serve as their homes. These organizations are working with motels to ensure people have a place to shelter and keep safe. Funding to make this possible is thanks to the Covid-19 Community Relief Fund coordinated by the United Way of Greenville County.
Federal dollars are also being made available. United Housing Connections has announced that $4 million in Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) funds is on its way to the Upstate to help with Covid-19 Disaster Relief. These funds can be used to prevent, prepare for and respond to the coronavirus pandemic among individuals and families who are homeless or receiving homeless assistance. In addition, ESG funds can be used to support homeless assistance and prevention activities designed to relieve the impact of Covid-19.
The City of Greenville and Greenville County Redevelopment Authority (GCRA) are working collectively with partners to utilize the other federal dollars that will assist with an anticipated exponential spike in housing-related needs. Additional advocacy is already underway as the second federal relief package is being released. GHA urges residents of Greenville County to join advocacy efforts as over 32,000 households were rent burdened before Covid-19 and S.C. was already known to have the highest eviction rates in the country.
While the current reality for our homeless neighbors is grim, Greenville is fortunate to have organizations like GHA and its many partners rallying to find solutions for our most vulnerable. Please consider contributing to one of these organizations or to the Covid-19 Community Relief Fund.
Find regular updates on these issues by visiting Greenville Homeless Alliance’s Facebook group - Covid-19 Homelessness Resources Hub.
Debbie Nelson is the President of DNA Creative Communications, an inspirational marketing and public relations firm for nonprofits. She is the founder of Shine the Light Nonprofit Forums in the Upstate and at the state level she coordinates Together SC’s Knowledge Network.