Rising to the Challenge

Serving the hungry and homeless during a pandemic

BY Christine R. Gonzalez

Volunteers prepare plates and serve guests during the First Fruit Ministry’s annual holiday homeless dinner in November. Allison Potter
Volunteers prepare plates and serve guests during the First Fruit Ministry’s annual holiday homeless dinner in November. Allison Potter

Every year at Thanksgiving, restaurateur Ash Aziz feeds the homeless at his restaurant on Front Street. This year, the plan was modified for safety to take away containers and only outdoor seating, but the food rivaled a feast fit for a king.

 Homeless shelters and food programs are adjusting to meet increased challenges during the pandemic, with fewer staff and volunteers to assist them with their mission of caring for the most vulnerable.

“COVID has turned our world upside down in terms of typical service delivery. Nobody had a blueprint to share with us on how to respond in a situation like this,” says Katrina Knight, executive director of the Good Shepherd Center in Wilmington. 

In late March, Good Shepherd was housing 75 to 85 homeless adults and children plus center staff in one building.

“There was no amount of creativity that would get everyone spaced apart enough to adequately do social distancing,” Knight says. “Like most shelters, ours is designed to be congregate in nature.”

Mimicking what larger cities like Charlotte were doing, Knight took the initiative to place their women and families in motels, at least temporarily. 

“About March 31st, we moved our ladies and families to local motel rooms and began serving them there,” she says. “We took food, provided quarters for laundry, provided transportation to essential places, and provided their case management over there. Doing that allowed me to take our 50 gentlemen and spread the men out over all three dorms.”

Major Mark Craddock with The Salvation Army of the Cape Fear had to apply similar measures, reducing capacity 50 percent to house 25 people. Two beds are kept on reserve for the homeless being released from hospital care.

The Salvation Army has protocols in place to aid a homeless person who has tested positive for the coronavirus.

“When a homeless individual tests positive for COVID we cannot bring them into our general populations,” Craddock explains. “So we have arrangements between a coalition of local organizations including United Way, New Hanover County, the Good Shepherd Center, Red Cross, and we have a series of motel rooms that we can rent. We quarantine our homeless in those spaces, so we can keep people safe and provide those wrap-around services they need — food, health, things that we all need and various organizations can provide.”

Incidents of domestic violence have risen with lockdown orders in place. The Domestic Violence Services and Shelter (DVSS) has seen a huge increase in placement needs.

“Our shelter was destroyed by Hurricane Florence, so we are at an alternate shelter location,” explains Tania Varela, court advocate for DVSS. “The amount we shelter right now has tripled because of COVID. It is supposed to be around 10-15. Right now (November) we have 35, we have had 40. That housing number fluctuates a lot.”

The shelter is an undisclosed location because abusers often try to find where clients are staying.

Varela says there are a lot of extra pressures on people right now, causing more abuse.

“Victims don’t have a reprieve from that violence if the abuser is home fulltime,” she explains. “The abused are taking life second-by-second. They don’t have those moments to recover.”

At the beginning of the stay-at-home order there was a lack of information.

“Victims thought they could not file a protective order because the courts are closed. But that was never the case,” Varela says.

Feeding the Hungry 

Many feeding programs continue with new twists to allow social distancing. Others have stopped or slowed because of budget cuts or the temporary loss of dozens of volunteers who are elderly or health compromised, the most vulnerable coronavirus demographic.

“We chose to continue feeding the poor and keeping our food pantry open,” says Rick Stoker, founder of First Fruit Ministries. “We could not let people in the building, so we set up a tent outside. The office workers had to shift into jeans and ball caps and fix boxes of groceries.”

The food pantry is open Wednesday and Saturday. First Fruit also continues to serve meals outside at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. And their facility on Vance Street remains open for hot lunch and dinner to the unsheltered on Thursdays. The ministry also takes meals and encouragement out to homeless camps two days a week.

“We got so low on supplies that we had to cut out our Tuesday feeding,” Stoker says. “We are going to be okay, and we are not going to stop. But the chore level and expense has changed a lot.”

The Salvation Army is maintaining their nightly to-go meals, serving between 30-50 visitors at 6 p.m. The organization feeds its 25 residents three meals a day.

The Good Shepherd soup kitchen had been one of the larger efforts in town, often feeding 150-250 people in a one-hour lunch period. But with many of the 550 volunteers staying home, the staff could not keep up the pace.

“We ended up discontinuing that program,” Knight says. “What we did do is ramp up our food giveaway. Folks can walk up or drive up and we already have food bagged.”

Good Shepherd also prepares and delivers food boxes to some fragile folks they have rehoused in the community, making sure they are getting some staples in their home every week.

Changes, Giving and Growing

Donations ebb and flow. Most agencies agree that giving has remained better than expected, at least at the start of the pandemic.

“Folks have already been wonderful,” Knight says of the Good Shepherd donors.

The organization’s Facebook page shows sock drives, a Bat Mitzvah food drive, and other giving projects that have the community donating in new ways.

“There is never a day in the year that we can’t use a can of green beans or tomatoes. We love fresh produce too,” Knight says. “We can use gas cards because we do a lot of transporting folks to medical appointments. Even a $10 gift card is an easy add on when you’re already at the grocery store. It’s not always a $1,000 check; even small gifts make a difference.”

Still, there is concern for meeting needs down the road. Agencies might have to cut more services that low-income and homeless people rely on. Other agencies have added staff to handle grant and federal funding.

“We have had to cancel virtually all of our fundraisers,” Knight says. “But I think this year, even modest donations will help us with our safety net programs. We had people send us their stimulus checks because they felt we needed it more than they did.  It is a testament to how creative people are in their giving and the sacrifices they make to help people.”

Good Shepherd is also working with the eviction prevention program, which has brought new funding.

“We are working with city and state agencies to work with eviction prevention for specifically pandemic-related crisis,” Knight says. “One downside of all that money is it is almost exclusively ‘pass-through’ funds. Those dollars go right back out to landlords and utility companies.”

First Fruit’s Stoker agrees about the generosity of people in Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach and New Hanover County at the onset of the pandemic, but donations have dipped in a stagnant economy.

“After people saw how real COVID was and saw that shifting our way of doing things was expensive, the finances seemed to come with it,” he says. “There was a good amount of giving at that time. A lot of businesses are hurting or failing, people don’t have the surplus, so giving has gone way down.”

People are weary of the pandemic and lockdown lifestyle.

“I think we’ve done pretty well considering how horrible this thing has been. And that part encourages me. We’re still America and it is amazing how much ground we can cover if we have to do it,” Stoker says.

When the virus subsides, volunteers will be needed to help provide services for the most vulnerable in the county.

“The ideal volunteer is anybody. We have a lot of need in the kitchen, paperwork, stand out with a clipboard and see how many people are coming, inventory of groceries. We have a guy that mows the yard who is about 400 years old,” Stoker says with a laugh.

There is a myriad of ways to donate to worthwhile agencies in the county. Visit websites and Facebook official pages for online donations and to see the year-round Wish Lists. Also look for The Salvation Army kettles in town.

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