Winter officially arrives in a week, and the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped for the colder weather that’s already here. Those experiencing food and housing insecurity, as well as those who have struggled with the impact of a pandemic economy, have been seeking out community resources in higher numbers.
“At first we were just a nighttime shelter, but when COVID started, we immediately went 24/7,” says Mike Orrill, Special Projects Coordinator for Chaffee County Public Health and board member for Chaffee County Hospitality Inc. “In the summer we were off, and we just opened up again. We do the COVID testing for men and women in the shelter. We do temperatures, we require a mask, those kinds of things that, of course, we didn’t do before.”
The pandemic has added a lot to Orrill’s plate when it comes to managing and connecting those who need them with local resources. Local churches that in the past have provided shower access, continue to do so since the hot springs pool showers have been closed.
Orrill was originally running those on his own, but they now have a team to manage the showers for the few days a week they’re open. Before COVID-19, Chaffee County Public Health wasn’t involved in running showers at all.
“We get a lot of calls about people who need a place to stay,” says Orrill. “Probably more than usual, which is difficult, because if they don’t want to stay in the shelter there really isn’t any other option for these folks. So we’ll get tents out, which is a terrible second option, but there are no funds to put people up long-term in motels.”
The Chaffee Community Resource Center has also had to double down on its procedures. “We have had to limit the number of people we can allow in our center to one person at a time, ask them to use disinfectant and Lysol the refrigerator handles and doors after each person comes through,” says Director of the Chaffee Community Resource Center Melody Hickman. “We require masks and have them to hand out if needed.”
One of the big concerns Orrill says he has is that if one of the men or women in the shelter were to test positive for COVID-19, it would be difficult to find a place for them to isolate or quarantine.
“A lot of hotels won’t allow that for the expense of it,” he says. “So far we’ve been lucky and we haven’t had any of that. But if one was to test positive, we have an average of ten men who have had contact in the men’s shelter and probably an average of three women who have been using the women’s shelter who would be at risk.”
Hickman echoes Orrill’s concern about the potential impacts of a possible infection. “The homeless are housed together and the spread of this virus will run through this community hard and they have no place to be safe and heal.”
Most local food pantries are still running with a modified approach. The First Presbyterian Church continues to run its pantry and Monday soup kitchen.
“It’s takeout orders, rather than sitting-in orders. They’ve sort of tried to limit close contacts as much as possible but they’ve continued the services,” Orrill says. “And that’s the same for the Grainery, which is the other big food pantry in town.”
The Chaffee Community Resource Center offers emergency food assistance from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 pm. “We get food that is at the end of its shelf-life from Safeway three times a week,” says Hickman, “and accept community donations and distribute food on an as-needed basis.”
Even with a smaller local population, rural regions experience their own unique struggles with addressing homelessness and food insecurity even in the best of years. Orrill points out that in urban and metropolitan areas, there are more resources and they may be easier to access. Additionally, rural areas don’t show the same evidence of food and housing insecurity as urban areas.
“In rural areas the issue of homelessness and hunger is a lot more hidden than it is in the urban areas,” he says. “Salida has probably a population of around 40 adults who are homeless, and I don’t think a lot of people see that.”
Both Hickman and Orrill have seen an increase in needs this year, either for food or housing.
“People are afraid,” Hickman says. “Many people in the homeless community have social anxiety issues and they cannot get the one-on-one support that they need. Further, they are put into homeless shelters and fear a COVID spread in this closed situation. There is no place safe to go. They feel left to their own ends in society.”
“As people pull more and more from them, those resources will disappear more quickly and will need to be sort of replenished consistently,” says Orrill. While it’s a band-aid approach to their needs, financial support is what drives the shelter. “Those funds run out really fast. It costs $75,000 this year to run that shelter. And that’s all donations from the community. It takes a lot.”
Additionally, community conversation plays a big role in how those in need are supported. For Hickman, lasting change starts with communities thinking about how to turn emergency situations like food and shelter insecurity into long-term solutions.
“I would like to ask our community to think about advocacy, how we can create a safety net, how we can walk alongside those most in need in our community and offer them a ladder up,” she says. “There must be more than a fish we hand out. We need to start thinking through how to transition what is coming into more security.”
“There’s a lot of stigma attached to homelessness,” adds Orrill. “I think a lot of people think that those who are homeless have brought it on themselves, they’re just lazy. But once you start to work with people who are in homelessness, you realize that there are a lot of circumstances that have led to that.”
“When a community like this one talks about affordable housing, they need to realize that for a person who is homeless and without a job and unable to keep a job, affordable housing in the way that we have been talking about it is not realistic,” he continues. “A lot of these folks who are homeless may only have $6,000 a year from disability checks or things like that. Affordable housing for them looks a lot different than affordable housing for somebody who has a job.”
“There is a tidal wave on our horizon,” Hickman says. “Entire families, most of them young families that have lost their jobs, their homes, and have no anchor, are floating across our country looking for a place to call home.”
Orrill is grateful for the community’s support through donations and engagement. “They have provided really well for that, and I’m grateful. All of us who work with those agencies who are providing those services are just really very grateful for the community’s generosity.”
If you are in need of support this winter, visit chaffeeresources.com for a list of available resources, including food, shelter, and shower access.
Featured image: Chaffee County Community Resource Center. Courtesy image