Pandemic puts strain on homeless and agencies that serve them

Robert Alan Glover

Room in the Inn volunteers dish up meals to go for the organization’s clients. Room In the Inn has had to make drastic changes to its operations to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and administrators remain very concerned about the vulnerable homeless and newly housed clients it serves.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the recommendation to shelter in place to stem the spread of the virus is placing a strain on Nashville’s homeless population and the agencies that serve them, like Room In the Inn.

“There is a lot more anxiety among our clients now, as there is for everyone, and gone is the care we tried to provide, along with the intentional contact,” said Room In The Inn Executive Director Rachel Hester. “But now we are coming to terms with how we can still best help them.”

The crucial winter housing program, in which churches, including many Catholic parishes, around the city provide the homeless a warm and safe place to sleep and a meal, had to close two weeks early because the churches could no longer host gatherings of people and suspended nearly all their activities.

Especially hard hit however, was Room In The Inn’s day center, which by necessity moved outside, and can now only serve two people at a time.

Gone also is the sense of welcome and belonging that Room In The Inn’s clients received at the day shelter.

Before the COVID-19 precautions were put in place, “clients were able to eat inside, mingle with others, and network with social service agencies for vitally needed help,” said Hester.

Now, after being handed their small lunch, the clients have to move on.

“We have worked 30 years to build a welcoming community, and now we have to practice social distancing, which is something that the homeless cannot do and which puts them at risk,” said Hester.

“Our entire operation numbered around 400 people, day and night, but now has been scaled down to 100 visitors, whom we serve in our day center,” she said.

The RITI guest house remains open, Hester said, “to house three groups of people; those with crucial medical needs, people in recovery from substance abuse, and our aging homeless population.”

“We also accommodate veterans who are themselves transitioning out of homelessness, and maintain 37 apartments on site,” said Hester.

At an especially dangerous time like this, we work hard to bring them daily supplies and help them shelter in place,” said Hester.

Room In The Inn also provides an occupational therapist to help their clients, and the therapist has been reminding the homeless to wash their hands often to prevent the spread of the virus.

Room In The Inn is working hard

with other agencies that serve the

homeless, such as the Nashville Rescue Mission and The Oasis Center, along with city officials, “to create other options,” Hester said.

 “People have stepped up in many different ways, such as Christ The King Church, which donated all of its supplies to us from their warehouse,” Hester said. Christ the King is one of the churches that regularly hosts a group of Room In The Inn’s clients during the winter months.

“And soon we will be giving out tents that we recently purchased,” Hester added.

With help from officials of the Diocese of Nashville, Room In The Inn found a Texas-based company, Dollar Days, that was selling tents the homeless could use, said Melanie Barnett, community development director for Room In The Inn.

The agency was able to purchase more than 50 two-person tents at a final cost of $22.63 each, Barnett said.

“The tents will be distributed through our partners who are working at the Fairgrounds, and the important thing is that we got them,” Barnett said.

Room In The Inn still needs a wide variety of items to help their clients, including gloves, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and others. Anyone who can help is encouraged to contact Room In The Inn through its website at www.roomintheinn.org.