When staying home is not an option: How Grand Rapids homeless navigate the COVID-19 pandemic

When Dennis Knight first found out about COVID-19 he was at the Mel Trotter Ministries’ Step Up Recovery Program. This program is designed for people who struggle with an addiction to drugs or alcohol and are having a hard time accessing employment and achieving financial stability.

“I remember exactly what I felt when I heard about coronavirus. I was watching the news and I heard COVID-19 had come to Kent County and I panicked,” Knight explains. 

Before that afternoon, COVID-19 to Knight seemed like a virus affecting people only outside of the United States; but that day he realized how dangerous it was because people in Kent County were contracting the virus. 

In a panic, Knight remembers packing his bags and leaving Mel Trotter. 

“I left the program because I had no idea what COVID-19 was all about and I thought it was a complete death sentence. I thought that if you got it you died.”

After leaving Mel Trotter, Knight was able to stay with his son, but he says a few days after he arrived, he relapsed and began drinking again. 

“One night I got so drunk that I had no idea where I left my car. It was my wake up call,” Knight adds. 

Knight explains that he wasn’t ready to leave Mel Trotter when he did, and turning to alcohol was a familiar way to avoid dealing with the crippling fear, anxiety, and stress he was experiencing. After realizing he had gone too far, Knight took himself to Mel Trotter so he could detox in a safe way. While detoxing, Knight learned the steps he could take to keep himself safe from coronavirus. Dennis Knight

Homeless amid a pandemic

When one is experiencing homelessness, abiding by social distancing guidelines can be harder, shares Knight. Not having a place to live makes quarantining nearly possible because private spaces are limited or non existent. 

In the middle of March, Mel Trotter put guidelines in place to keep the virus from spreading among guests and staff. Dennis Van Kampen, President and Chief Executive Officer of Mel Trotter Ministries explains that every time someone enters the door of the organization, their temperature is checked and they are screened for COVID-19 symptoms. Inside the premises everyone is required to keep six feet apart and wear a mask. 

These guidelines, Van Kampen explains, have kept the virus from spreading rampantly among those experiencing homelessness, but the barriers to stay healthy are still significant for these individuals. 

“Healthcare is always a barrier. The vast majority experiencing homelessness do not have a primary care physician so they rely on a clinic or an emergency department at a hospital for any medical care that they need,” says Van Kampen. “During COVID-19 that has really heightened. Whereas I might be able to get on a video conference with my doctor and talk about some symptoms and wonder out loud with my doctor if it's COVID or something like that, but that's not something that can be easily done when you are experiencing homelessness.” 

Van Kampen’s awareness of these unique challenges prompted him to form a partnership with the Kent County Health Department and Mercy Health Saint Mary’s to do a first round of COVID-19 testing for those experiencing homelessness. At no cost, over 200 people staying at Mel Trotter were tested at Mercy Health St. Mary’s Hospital for coronavirus and less than 30% of those tested, tested positive for the virus. 

Those who tested positive were quarantined at Guiding Light Mission and at Fulton Manor. They were encouraged to stay at the locations but were not required to do so. They received regular meals and care from nurses from the Kent County Health Department. Since then, several rounds of testing have taken place at Mel Trotter. Knight was tested for COVID-19 in this last round and he’s still awaiting for the results. 

Knight, who has been taking the virus very seriously since finding out about its arrival in the county, says he’s glad for the opportunity to get tested. “Testing helps people know and can keep us even safer,” he adds. 

Bob Kreter, Marketing Manager at Dégagé Ministries, says even though COVID-19 has forced restaurants, schools, hair salons, gyms, and office spaces to close or shift their hours, their services never closed.

“The biggest thing was that we couldn’t have 150 people in our dining room so we made all of our meals to go and served them outside,” Kreter says. 

Instead of charging $2 per meal, staff at Dégagé Ministries, decided to make all meals available at no cost. 

“All of our services like access to our washers and dryers for laundry, and access to case managers remained open but we had a limited number of people who were allowed in and everyone received a temperature check and was screened for symptoms and had to wear a mask.” 

Upon entering Dégagé, each guest is required to wash their hands and put on a mask, and although masks are given to everyone who doesn’t have one — Knight says not everyone wants to wear one. 

“Some people don’t take it as seriously as they should,” says Knight, who believes the only way he will stay safe is if he focuses on caring for himself. Dégagé Ministries staff utilizing PPE. Photo courtesy Dégagé Ministries.

Social distancing while homeless

“No one can keep you from getting it. If you aren’t going to take it seriously you will get it and if I see you not wearing a mask — I will not approach you,” 

And while it's been difficult for Knight to stay away from others who aren’t abiding by social distancing guidelines or wearing a mask, he says he’s learned to set strong boundaries with others.

“The other day somebody (who wasn’t wearing a mask) asked me if I could help them and I wanted to but I have to protect myself first, so I let them know they needed to put on a mask first. I don’t touch other things or people. I will give you a thumbs and ask you how you are doing but I ask others to not touch me,” Knight adds. 
Van Kampen echoes Knight's concerns that those people experiencing homelessness can have a harder time socially isolating. 

"[During quarantine] I could be at home with my family and we were relatively isolated and away from the general public and I could choose whether or not I went to the grocery store or have my groceries delivered to me,” he says. “I had all kinds of choices where I could socially isolate if I wanted to and those choices don’t really exist for people experiencing homelessness."

As numbers are increasing nationally and in Michigan and the season inevitably shifts, Van Kampen is worried about how they will be able to serve the homeless population while maintaining social distancing. 

“And how many people based on numbers from previous years will we not be able to serve?” Van Kampen asks, “as a community we are going to have to figure out what we do with those people to make sure there is a safe place for them to go inside.”

And it's not just the increase in numbers that worry Van Kampen. He is also concerned that the eviction moratorium ordered by Governor Gretchen Whitmer is set to expire on July 15, which could leave many without stable housing. Dennis Van Kampen

“All indications are that when that expires there will be a significant increase in the numbers of people experiencing homelessness that need help,” he adds.

Some of those that can help, Van Kampen says, are landlords that could offer leniency to those who may be out of work and cannot pay their rent.

“I totally understand that if you are a landlord you have to be able to make an income and feed your family, but if there is any way we can help families who are housed now from becoming homeless, it could make a difference in whether the virus spreads or not.” 

Every day Knight prays that things are back to normal. “Hopefully we can get a vaccine and we can go back to our normal ways of life. Until then we have to stick together and we can beat this thing and we can do it one day at a time by washing our hands and wearing a mask.” 

As far as the future goes, Knight is taking it day by day. He is hoping to graduate from the program and be able to live independently soon. 

“I want to be sober and healthy. I have three children and I love them with all my heart and I don’t want them to see their daddy die from alcohol or the coronavirus,” he says. 

Photos courtesy Mel Trotter Ministries unless otherwise stated.
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