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Nonprofits adjusting service, some avoiding homeless camps for social distancing

Updated: Apr. 8, 2020 at 7:20 PM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - The rising number of coronavirus cases in Madison County is changing how nonprofits operate.

In April, a coalition of Huntsville charities and the city released a joint memo discouraging charitable visits to the city’s homeless camps. Instead, it asked help be directed to larger organizations.

The memo, published by Huntsville City, the Downtown Rescue Mission, First Stop, the Salvation Army and the ELM Foundation reads as follows:

In these unusual and difficult times, many in our great community wish to help our unsheltered neighbors. Helping our homeless neighbors is a laudable work of care and compassion, but we all need to understand the risks and the need to practice simple precautions.

As a community, we need to be mindful that some individuals with the COVID-19 virus are demonstrating no symptoms. In short, this means that well-meaning volunteers visiting the homeless camps, could be carrying the virus to our vulnerable friends. Likewise, people living on the streets or in the camps, may look healthy and whole, but could transmit the virus to volunteers and their fellow homeless campers. Our homeless community is extremely susceptible to disease.

As a result, the City of Huntsville reminds citizens that any visits made to a camp are strictly at your own risk and recommends that prior to any further contact in the camps, any persons or groups email huntsvillehomeless2020@gmail.com to provide contact information on your specific group, services provided, frequency and locations visited.

In order to avoid danger of the COVID-19 virus, we recommend that anyone who wishes to assist the homeless in any way, contact and work with The Salvation Army, the Downtown Rescue Mission, and First Stop to volunteer or drop off donations and supplies. These experienced service providers can apply the necessary precautions, coordinate community-wide activities, and provide the services that are critical at his time.

We are aware that some of the homeless population has been exposed to the virus and several have been isolated as tests are being accomplished. Today, we have not heard of a confirmed positive test among the homeless, but we are anticipating that this could be the case. Being sensitive to this separation need, First Stop’s three Outreach Teams have suspended their weekly trips to the camps until the threat has passed. They do not want to carry the infection to the camps. They are making up for the loss of the services in the camps by providing extra clothes, hygiene materials, and food at the Day Center parking lot.

At First Stop, the day center for the homeless, close attention is being paid to the social distance guidance. Because of this guidance, they have closed the center and are providing all of their services outdoors, where the 6 feet standard can be met. To keep staff from inadvertently transmitting the virus to the homeless consumers, or receiving the virus from them, they wear masks and gloves and respect the social distance rule.We ask for the public’s cooperation as we strive to continue to meet needs in appropriate ways while coordinating services and marginalizing risk. For further information, email huntsvillehomeless2020@gmail.com.

First Stop Executive Director Tim Davis oversaw a bagged lunch event on Wednesday.

It featured donated food and supplies, he said “everything we were doing in the camps we’re now doing from here.”

He said he wants service to continue, but in a safer way.

“The big lesson is we want people to take away is don’t go to the camps. There’s so many people who are asymptomatic, you may be trying to do a good deal for a person in a homeless camp, but you may be carrying the disease," he said.

Organizer Alicia Bailey said Bearded Warriors and other aligned organizations are still delivering food to local camps, but are taking precautions.

She said food is being prepackaged, and then delivered out of a truck with limited interaction.

“We are just worried about those friends that are not leaving their camps, and are not going to use those services. A lot of friends stay at their camps a lot of the time, because they don’t want to get their things vandalized or stolen,” she said.

Bailey said safety is paramount and she respects the memo and the organizations behind it.

“It is a concern, but it’s honestly like going into WalMart. You know? Anybody can walk into Walmart and get their groceries and touch a buggie, or an item something has gotten," she said.

The memo is not mandatory, and it’s unclear how long the differentiated service to the homeless communities will last.

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