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Pandemic takes resources, leaves homeless vulnerable

homeless COVID 19

Samantha Whitson talks about the plight of the homeless at Zinn Park in Anniston. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Homeless people in Anniston have heard the suggestions on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19: Wash hands frequently, maintain a 6-foot distance from others and stay home if possible.

But as some homeless people gathered in Zinn Park on Wednesday morning, they wondered how they’re supposed to stay home if they don’t have one, and how they can limit contact with others

Homeless people interviewed in Anniston on Wednesday said their resources are limited on a normal day. After schools, businesses, some nonprofits and other public spaces shut down due to the virus, finding those resources has become much more difficult.

‘How can you stay home?’

Samantha Whitson of Anniston said she keeps a bottle of hand sanitizer on her at all times and does her best to maintain social distancing. 

Other than that, she said, she can only pray.

“All I can do is ask God to help us, ask God to clean up the atmosphere,” Whitson said

Sometimes, Whitson said, she stays with family or inside a “bando” — an abandoned building. She said others who aren’t so lucky have to resort to sleeping behind stores or walking around at night to stay awake.

A man who asked that only his last name, Rogers, be used because he didn’t want others to know he’s homeless, said he’s also trying his best to keep his distance from others, but it’s harder when he has nowhere he can go to shut himself away.

“I wish I could keep away from everyone with a roof over my head,” Rogers said. “If you don’t have a home, how can you stay home?”

Rogers said he could stay in an abandoned home or vehicle, but that’s illegal.

“It’s not really an option,” Rogers said.

‘Beckwood Manor needs to be open’

The pandemic began nearly a month after the Anniston City Council postponed a plan that would have turned a donated building on Leighton Avenue into a homeless shelter. The building, donated by Noland Health Services, was once an 85-bed nursing home known as Beckwood Manor.

Residents of the Tyler Hill neighborhood near the facility complained to the council in February that they’d had little notice of the plan and were worried about potential crime, panhandling and increased foot traffic across Quintard Avenue caused by a homeless shelter.

Had the shelter opened, Interfaith Ministries leader April LaFollette said, the homeless community would have faced fewer problems on Wednesday.

“That particular shelter offered separate rooms,” LaFollette said. “You could have isolated them inside ... Now we’re left with a problem we’re not sure we can solve.”

Sylvia Scoggins, a local advocate for homeless people who said she was once homeless herself, said the building is going to waste. If the city didn’t want homeless people congregating or sleeping in public spaces, Scoggins said, the shelter was their solution.

“Beckwood Manor needs to be open,” Scoggins said.

An attempt Wednesday to reach Mayor Jack Draper for additional comment was unsuccessful.

‘The first to die’

Rogers said homeless people typically shower at Interfaith Ministries, Carver Community Center or Parker Memorial Baptist Church, but he didn’t know if they were still open. Even so, he said, it’s not the same as having full-time access to a shower.

“If they’re closed, that’s going to be a lot of people who need showers,” he said.

William Pearson, another homeless person at Zinn Park, said the homeless also risk being arrested for sleeping or relieving themselves in public, but he couldn’t find anywhere else to do either.

“If they use the bathroom in a bush, they go to jail,” he said.

Rogers said he fears he and others like him are the most vulnerable to catching the virus. 

“We’re probably going to be the first to die out here,” Rogers said.

Julie Edwards, who heads Interfaith Ministries’ Meals on Wheels program, said the local homeless community also has less access to regular health care.

“They’re out in the elements. They’re more susceptible to catching colds, catching flus, catching bacterial infections,” Edwards said. “Throw the COVID-19 virus on top of that.”

On the other hand, LaFollette said, keeping them out of public places like libraries and restaurants may prevent them from interacting with someone who has the virus.

“They’re very isolated at the moment, which for them is a good thing,” LaFollette said.

‘Everything we need’

LaFollette has always had an open-door policy, but that door has gotten a lot smaller during the pandemic.

LaFollette said Interfaith Ministries’ building usually serves as a place for homeless people to hang out, use a phone or sleep. Now, she said, the recommended 6-foot distance has limited the amount of people who can safely stay there. 

In the building’s conference room Wednesday, four people sat, each at least two yards away from the others.

“I could maybe fit about two more in here,” LaFollette said.

Edwards said the ministry typically serves free coffee to homeless people every Monday through Thursday.

There’s still coffee, she said, but people can only come in to get it one at a time.

Lori Floyd, leader of the Right Place, said her organization has closed down to prevent homeless people from catching the virus from volunteers.

She said The Right Place has prepared food packages to pass out during weekends, when places like the Anniston Soup Bowl are closed, and she’s keeping in regular contact with Interfaith Ministries to see how she can help them.

Seth Murphy, who heads Servant of Jesus Church and Shelter, said the shelter is not taking any new residents, and the men who currently stay there were quarantined on the property.

Because the men were isolated from the public, he said, he didn’t see the need for social distancing.

“It’s a bunch of men,” Murphy said. “They’re not going to get that close to each other anyway.”

So far, Murphy said, his shelter has everything it needs and is “handling it with prayer.”

“Jesus has got us,” Murphy said. “Jesus supplies everything we need.”

‘The homeless look out for the homeless’

Scoggins, who said she was homeless for five years before someone donated a home to her, said she typically lets homeless people stay a night at her house and shower.

Scoggins said nothing about her routine had changed since the pandemic started: People were still coming over and no one was quarantined inside, she said. In fact, she said, she worried that keeping people inside would make them sicker.

“I feel like I ain’t done nothing that God’s going to punish me for with this disease,” Scoggins said.

Without as many resources available to the homeless population, Scoggins said, she’s seen how they’ve managed, especially in the past two weeks.

“The homeless look out for the homeless,” Scoggins said. “What one ain’t got out here, someone else has.”

Contact Staff Writer Mia Kortright at 256-235-3563.