Virus forces early closure of shelter
MOUNT VERNON — Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Winter Sanctuary Emergency Homeless Shelter closed April 1, one month earlier than planned.
A group of former guests sat outside the shelter since the morning closure Wednesday.
The men said they had been making arrangements for housing and employment on their own. Of the five men sitting outside, only one reported having found a housing option.
“We’re just sitting here. Just waiting for something to happen,” said Steve Cole, making several phone calls while the News interviewed the men.
Cole said he had been staying at the shelter for a month since he recently got out of rehab.
Jim Hawkins, a guest at the shelter since November, said he was going to stay at a friend’s house for the time being. Cole echoed that he will probably stay with a friend, too, although nothing solid had been arraigned yet.
“I might go back to my dad’s,” said Paul Logan, a younger man who recently moved to Mount Vernon.
When asked if they have been able to find employment under the current pandemic economy, Cole said he was able to find a job by “going around and putting in applications myself.”
Hawkins, who did not find employment, said he plans on applying for Social Security.
“I’m old,” Hawkins said.
Interchurch Director Joy Harris said the biggest challenge for the homeless population right now is that many businesses and public places are closed due to the virus outbreak.
“There’s no place for the homeless to go during the day,” Harris said. “Usually there’s the public library and McDonald’s. Currently, these places are closed. So if there’s a rainy day, where are they going to go to stay dry and get warm?”
Harris said that the county does not have the resources to shelter the homeless under the pandemic.
While Licking County’s shelter has dormitory-style housing which allows them to comply with social distance requirements and stay open, Knox County’s shelter does not have that luxury, according to Harris.
Harris said Interchurch does provide some financial aid to help with the first month’s rent and deposit. Applicants will have to have found a housing option first “which is difficult if they don’t have any source of income,” Harris said.
Even if people can find employment and housing for now, Harris suggested that there will be more challenges down the road for the homeless and the housing insecure.
“My biggest concern is a few months from now, when the moratorium on water and utility shutoffs is lifted,” Harris said.
During the crisis, some utility companies have temporarily halted nonpayment shutoffs and suspended late fees.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency issued an order Tuesday that water services shall not disconnect customers due to nonpayment.
However, the order does not prevent the water company from sending monthly bills based on water usage and collecting later.
Harris noted that the suspensions will eventually end and people will be hit by bills and shutoffs then.
Advocates such as the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO) and Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) have recognized the urgency to both shelters the current homeless population and prevent people from becoming homeless due to the economic impact of the pandemic.
Both organizations have issued public statements urging state governments to suspend evictions and issue emergency funds to help rehouse the homeless and support at-risk households.
“Once the short term crisis is addressed, we would advocate for any and all measures from the Statehouse to support tenants and homeowners with rent and mortgage payments that have accrued during COVID-19 related work stoppage,” NEOCH said in their statement.
The Ohio Housing Finance Agency on March 18 approved a $5 million disbursement to the state’s nine regional housing planning bodies (Continua of Care) for homelessness prevention, rapid rehousing and emergency rental assistance, according to the OHFA press release.
However, COHHIO noted that state funding could take weeks to reach local responders. The road ahead is uncertain and urgent responses are needed.
“At this time, I’ll probably say if people want and can make cash donations, it’s probably best,” Harris, when asked about how the public can help local agencies support the homeless population in this crisis, said.