By Liora Engel-Smith

Kourtney Wilson is used to living in other people’s homes. For the past two years, the 19-year-old has been moving from couch to couch, staying with friends and family.

But the spread of coronavirus across the state has complicated the Greensboro resident’s life. With officials stressing the need for staying at home, Wilson, a part-time cashier at a gas station, said her current host asked her to find somewhere else to sleep. Others have been reluctant to open their doors.

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Area shelters, too, aren’t an option, Wilson said. The shelters she called told her they aren’t taking new clients because of coronavirus.

But last week, Wilson was dealt another blow. Guilford County, Greensboro and the city of High Point issued a shelter-in-place order on Wednesday that went into effect Friday. As of Wednesday afternoon, Wilson had no firm leads on a place to stay.

“I don’t know what I’d be able to do but be outside or whatever the case may be,” she said. “Because there’s nowhere for me to go.”

Wilson isn’t alone. In recent weeks, state and local officials have placed an ever-tightening list of social restrictions — closing schools, parks and libraries  — to stop the spread of the novel respiratory virus. Some social service agencies that work with the homeless have also taken steps of their own, such as closing off shelters to newcomers and modifying or canceling their free meals to prevent large gatherings where the virus could be passed around.

With infections in the state surpassing 1,000 as of Sunday and reports of the first deaths last week, Gov. Roy Cooper signed a statewide stay-at-home order that goes into effect at 5 p.m. today. The order exempts the state’s roughly 9,300 homeless people, but the closures associated with this social distancing create hurdles in accessing some of the most basic needs, such as bathrooms and running water and food.

The risk of coronavirus isn’t the only hardship homeless people face, said Mark Siler, associate pastor at Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, an organization that serves meals to the homeless. Hunger, untreated mental and physical illnesses, and harm from drug use are just some of the conditions people contend with, he said.

“COVID-19 is now just something that amplifies all of those existing threats and then adds one [more threat], a very huge one,” he said. “But we have to navigate the fact that there’s still these other threats, not just COVID-19.”

But responding to that new threat can get in the way of helping the homeless with other hardships.

‘Protect the people that we have’

At Greensboro Urban Ministry, an organization that operates a 100-bed shelter called Weaver House, the guiding principle has been protecting the shelter’s more than 70 current residents, said shelter director Michael Pearson. Beds at the dormitory-style hall are spaced far apart from each other to comply with social isolation guidelines, he said, and a doctor and a nurse come to the shelter to work with participants who need medical attention.

graphic including an image of coronavirus

To protect senior residents and those who have chronic lung disease from coronavirus, the shelter is also closed to newcomers, Pearson said.

“Right now our goal is to protect the people that we have and help them out the best way we can,” he added.

While that decision excludes people who have not yet found a shelter, Pearson added, Weaver House isn’t in a position to help, but the city is.

Representatives from the city of Greensboro were unavailable for comment Thursday morning or Friday evening, but in a press release this week, officials announced they are opening a temporary shelter at the Greensboro Sportsplex on Friday. Staff and residents of the new shelter will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms, according to the press release.

“This shelter-in-place solution offers our most vulnerable population the support and care they need, especially during this pandemic,” Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson said in the press release.

Services out in the open

Siler, the associate pastor at the Asheville church, also had to rethink the services at Haywood Street Congregation.

Until recently, church volunteers cooked and served Wednesday lunches and Sunday breakfasts to up to 500 people in an indoor community meal setting that connected people with each other, he said. Lingering around for conversations was encouraged.

But with large group gatherings prohibited through an executive order, staff and volunteers had to re-engineer the service with an eye to social distancing. The first thing they did, Siler said, was to clean the church building thoroughly and turn the community meal into takeout.


Volunteers at a water bottle station stand far apart at a parking lot to help with coronavirus social distancing while still serving meals to the homeless.
Haywood Street Congregation volunteers have scattered food and drink stations across the church parking lot to discourage crowding that could spread coronavirus while serving meals to the homeless. Photo credit: Haywood Street Congregation.

The small crew that prepares the meals has to wash their hands every 20 minutes. The cooks remain inside, and other volunteers carry the prepared meals to pick up stations the staff scattered across the parking lot for maximum distancing. As diners pick up their food, volunteers also walk around, offering everyone they see squirts of hand sanitizer while educating them about coronavirus.

“Our community is not watching cable television 24/7 — they don’t have it — and so there’s a lot of misinformation and lack of information,” he said.

Though Buncombe County has a-stay-at-home declaration, Siler said volunteers will continue to serve meals for as long as they can. They’ve even added a Saturday lunch to their lineup recently.

At some point, Siler said he hoped the county would come up with a way to house everyone. Perhaps then, volunteers could deliver food to hotel rooms or temporary shelters.

Representatives from Buncombe County were not available for comment this week, but Mountain Xpress reported the county allocated some money to reserve hotel rooms for homeless people with COVID-19. A similar initiative is underway in Mecklenburg County, where officials leased a 123-room hotel to isolate unhoused people with COVID-19.

Pip Flickinger, who works at AHOPE, an Asheville-based day shelter, said that though hotel rooms are available in Buncombe County, not everyone who needs a room can get one.

“It seems to be well-intentioned, but it’s hard to access these rooms,” she said. “It’s been awfully hard for people to get tested, [but] you have to have a pending test or a positive test.”

Weighing the options

By Thursday, Wilson, the 19-year-old from Greensboro who was looking for a place to stay, had heard of the temporary shelter in Greensboro. She wasn’t sure if she’d want to stay in a large room with a lot of people, however.

A family member said someone he knew in High Point might have a room for Wilson. But Wilson works in Greensboro and does not own a car. Taking the bus to work every day seems risky.

“With this coronavirus thing going on, that’s the most vulnerable way to get it,” she said in a text message.

She might just have to take her chances, she said.

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Liora Engel-Smith joined NC Health News in July 2019 and covers policies, programs and issues that affect rural areas. She has previously worked for the The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire and the Muscatine...

3 replies on “For NC’s homeless, coronavirus is one threat of many”

  1. i am currently homeless and would like recent news regarding where the homeless can access resources in the downtown asheville area

    1. Hi! Have you tried the state’s 211 hotline? They are supposed to help you find resources and supports.

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