On one of Jenna Dallow’s weekly Sunday drives through Athens, she recognized a familiar face.
“Junebug!” she called, remarking that she hadn’t seen him lately.
Junebug is unhoused and one of the people served by Food4Lives Athens, which provides food and necessities while fostering relationships with the unhoused community. Dallow is president of the nonprofit and makes weekly trips to visit unhoused people.
Food4Lives did not exist in Athens when the pandemic started. Amid the growing uncertainty surrounding the virus’ spread, many unhoused people in the city and those who serve them were left to fend for themselves.
Some organizations that help people experiencing homelessness received local relief, but that was in April 2020. Shelters had to cut their capacity to accommodate social distancing, and funds that would typically help the unhoused went toward coronavirus relief efforts.
“People were needing more and more help during this time, and less help was being provided to them,” Dallow said.
The risks of contracting COVID-19 are heightened for people who are unhoused, Dallow said. Many of them don’t have the resources to follow social distancing and hand-washing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food4Lives hands out masks, but people don’t always wear them. Unhoused people may not have health insurance or ID to be treated at a hospital or a way to safely get to one, Dallow said.
Adapting at the start
Bigger Vision of Athens, one of Athens’ homeless shelters, closed for nearly a month in March, said Debra Shaw Hess, the shelter’s board president. Before the pandemic, Bigger Vision had 34 beds available. When it reopened in April, COVID-19 safety guidelines cut its capacity in half.
Shaw Hess said Bigger Vision began following guidance from the CDC but grappled with uncertainty about the virus. At the beginning of the shutdown in March, recommendations for operating shelters were limited or nonexistent, Shaw Hess said.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do,” Shaw Hess said. “We didn’t have any guidance.”
Bigger Vision took the CDC guidelines seriously, she said. They increased disinfecting measures, required masks and ran temperature checks.
Besides providing a place to sleep, the facility hosts meals and allows guests to shower and do laundry. The shelter has fed the same number of guests as it did pre-pandemic and has expanded its hours to accommodate guests while social distancing, Shaw Hess said.
Since Bigger Vision reopened its doors in April, it has had to shut down three times due to COVID-19 cases. With all the variables affecting Bigger Vision’s guests and the worsening pandemic, Shaw Hess said she was pleasantly surprised by only three closures.
“It’s so hard to contain, especially in this population,” Shaw Hess said. “I was very concerned ... but it seems to be better than I thought.”
Still, the shelter has faced some challenges. Shaw Hess said until recently, Bigger Vision has relied almost exclusively on private donations but is submitting a proposal for new funding from the Athens-Clarke County government.
The shelter received $11,000 from the local government in April 2020, and more relief could be on the way from the federal government.
The American Rescue Plan — which President Joe Biden signed into law March 11 — is a $1.9 trillion legislative package aimed at helping the American people and economy recover from the pandemic. It includes funds for local governments as well as additional resources specifically allocated to helping those experiencing homelessness secure stable housing.
Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said he expects the city to receive around $60 million from the new law and is in communication with the rest of the commission to discuss its allocation within the community. Girtz said he anticipates some money will be set aside to help the unhoused community and the organizations serving them.
“We’re always looking to say, ‘How do we create some foundational supports that are going to serve us well in the long term rather than just putting some band aids on problems?’” Girtz said.
One potential use for the money, Girtz said, would be to construct more transitional housing for those experiencing homelessness, but the money could also be distributed to shelters through an application process.
Vaccines may signal the end of the pandemic for some Americans, but unhoused people may have trouble accessing them. Bigger Vision’s rotating guest list leaves the shelter unsure of when the risk of exposure will end and when it will be able to reopen to full capacity, Shaw Hess said.
Shaw Hess said she hopes the city will invest in funding for more beds, rehousing and employment assistance to help the members of the community get back on their feet. She emphasized that helping the unhoused community will serve the entire Athens community.
“That won’t help just us,” Shaw Hess said. “It helps everybody.”