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(Charlie L. Harper III)

More than eight months into the pandemic, area homeless shelters report fewer beds and volunteers due to social distancing protocols. But their clientele remains in need, so their staff have come up with new solutions, from using QR codes for donations to Thanksgiving sack meals.

With everyone being advised to limit interactions this Thanksgiving, Austonia takes a look at how Austin's shelters are coping with COVID.


Fewer shelter beds and volunteers

Jason Whaley, communication manager for Austin's Salvation Army, said the pandemic has made their shelter space scarce.

"We had to reduce our overall shelter capacity just based off CDC guidelines," he said. "You know, we've made beds, separated them into over six feet apart."

But the changes have been effective.

"Now fortunately we have not had to deal with a COVID outbreak at any of our shelters so that's a very good thing, and I believe that the protocols had a lot to do with that," he said.

That said, implementing safety procedures has cut down the number of badly needed volunteers.

"It certainly reduces the amount of volunteers we can actually have in the warehouse so we are most certainly cutting back in terms of just the amount of people for safety reasons," Whaley said, adding that this year those iconic red Salvation Army donation kettles will include QR codes, "so the people don't actually have to touch cash or touch the kettles."

A move from downtown

Monte Osburn, the executive director of The Foundation for the Homeless, said the pandemic has affected every aspect of his organization but especially its Feed My People program, which serves free breakfast every Tuesday and Thursday in downtown Austin.

"We would serve somewhere between four and six hundred per breakfast before COVID, and now it's down to maybe a hundred, 150, just because the population experiencing homelessness and needing that breakfast have kind of moved away from downtown into some other areas," he said.

Elaborating on the importance of the socializing aspect of the Feed My People program, Osburn said: "One of the draws for our clients to come in to have these breakfasts, it's not so much of the food, which is one type of sustenance, but they miss that connection with someone that they can speak to and just sit for a while and have a conversation with somebody rather than just surviving."

Volunteering at the foundation has been curbed significantly as well, as at other local organizations. But Osburn stressed that there are other ways to help beyond volunteering, including donating money and items such as masks and travel-sized personal hygiene products.

Another option: "Just becoming more knowledgeable about the issue," she said.

Seeking warmth

Amy Price, of Austin's Front Steps, said that another way to help the local homeless population is to donate a blanket through the organization's annual winter drive.

"Every year as winter arrives, there is a steady demand for blankets," she said. "We distribute blankets to shelter clients, individuals (who are) unsheltered and living in camps and outside places, and through the other nonprofits who work with people experiencing homelessness."

The goal this year is to get 1,300 blankets, and as Price explains, "We really need specific blankets, because the size and what the blankets are made of matters so much."

After taking some time to talk to clients and staff, Front Steps learned which blankets worked best and what blankets did not work at all.

"Wool blankets are a no-go, because most people living rough have skin damage and the wool is terribly irritating to wind- (and) sun-burned skin. Cotton blankets are a no-go because they soak up moisture from dew, rain (and) sleet and they become too heavy to carry and there is no way to dry them. Small blankets don't keep out the wind and cold," she said. "Our clients are adult men, and they know those small fleeces won't keep them warm." The blankets to donate to Front Steps should be twin- or full-sized.

Increased need

Antwon R. Martin, of the SAFE Alliance, an organization which offers shelter and housing as well as counseling for at risk individuals, says the pandemic has increased the number of people seeking shelter from abuse. "There are more people coming to SAFE for support, but the amount of shelter space we have, as always, is extremely limited," says Martin.

Due to the pandemic, volunteers are down and even basic fundraising has become a problem for the organization.

"Because of COVID-19, we couldn't hold our big fundraising events in person this year," Martin said. "Our annual gala raises more than $1 million each year, but we had to convert it to a digital event, which raised about $620,000. So we're doing everything we can to provide a high level of support to survivors of violence and abuse while finding ways to offset the decrease in donations."

The pandemic, with its shelter-in-place strictures, has made it particularly difficult for individuals who are risking abuse by simply staying at home.

"For many, home isn't a safe place," says Martin. "When someone is isolating inside a home with a partner or caregiver who uses abuse, the chance to reach out for support may never happen."

Building community

Alan Graham, the founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, is used to organizing a big Thanksgiving meal in downtown Austin, but this year things will be different.

"We're doing it outside, and we'll end up making some simple sack meals that people can come and pick up and take away," he said. "So the intimacy of what we do has got to be postponed for this year and hopefully we'll be back next year."

For Graham, whose organization not only brings out food to people daily but also runs Community First Village in far East Austin, the communal aspect is key to his work.

"Our belief in what homelessness is is not that you're without a house," he said. "We believe that housing is important, we believe housing is necessary but it is still insufficient as far as what the human person needs. And we have a saying at Mobile Loaves & Fishes that housing will never solve homelessness but community will."

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