‘This invisible population:’ Lansing homeless shelters full amid COVID-19 pandemic

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The Lansing Police Department reportedly dropped off a man beneath a bridge last weekend.

He was so intoxicated that he couldn’t walk and was known by local officers to be homeless, according to reports overheard on the police scanner last weekend. And with local shelters full and hospitals restricting guests, officers weren’t having much luck finding him a place to stay.

"I mean, we have no resources for this gentleman," an officer can be heard telling dispatch.

After several minutes of searching, they turned him loose to sleep under a bridge — in a thunderstorm.

"I think that's the best we got right now," an officer said.

Officials couldn’t verify details of the incident, as first reported on Facebook by local resident Loretta Stanaway, but audio recordings confirm the narrative.

And it’s a poignant example of what advocates are labeling as an increasingly dire situation facing the homeless community in Greater Lansing amid a growing global pandemic.

At least two or three dozen people in Lansing, likely more, are camped out at parks and wooded knolls, underneath bridges and inside empty buildings. Local homeless shelters have reached capacity. And this week, many more will have nowhere to turn as COVID-19 spreads.

Susan Cancro, director of Advent House Ministries, operates a street outreach team in Lansing. Typically, they’ll find about a dozen people routinely living outside, sometimes more in the warmer months. Volunteers usually hand out donated food and point them toward help.

But last weekend, Cancro counted at least 24 people sleeping outside in Lansing — some fortunate enough to have tents, others with nothing more than a few layers of coats and some cardboard. And without some extra space for the homeless, Cancro has nowhere to send them.

“One of the guys told me that he was hungry,” Cancro said. “The dumpster he usually eats at was empty this week. This is a level of extreme poverty that it’s almost a different world. These people are living underneath society in a lot of ways, and what little they have is going away.”

Michigan has tracked more than 5,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus over the last two weeks. And concerns of transmission among the homeless are often exacerbated by crowded living quarters, extreme stress, inadequate health care and poor hygiene, nutrition and sleep.

No COVID-19 cases have been confirmed among the homeless in Lansing, officials said. But at least two local homeless people have been labeled with “presumptive positive” cases and have since been quarantined at an unnamed hotel in Lansing until they can be tested for the disease.

Many local advocates, however, fear that a surge of confirmed COVID-19 cases among the homeless is wholly inevitable. And at least as of this week, options for shelter were running dry.

“This is one of the most most challenging communities to serve in this kind of crisis,” said Sharon Dade, director of the New Hope Community Center, a shelter with about 88 beds. “Right now, the big question for us is about capacity. We don’t have a plan for that right now.”

Homeless shelters in Greater Lansing were at their limit last week. The Rescue Mission’s shelter on Michigan Avenue was maxed out with 80 guests and isn’t accepting overnight stays until April 13, an effort that also mandates existing guests stay inside and isolated from others.

Dade occasionally finds space for a few at New Hope Community Center as some of her 88 guests leave to find other places to stay, but she expects those openings to be fewer and further between. Volunteers are working around the clock to find as much support as possible, in some cases putting people up in local hotels, but resources — and physical space — is still limited.

Dade also hopes to finalize plans for a larger overflow space soon, including the possibility of using local hotels or other mostly vacant buildings in Lansing. Shelters are also being forced to lean more heavily on temporary staffing as the number of volunteers continues to dwindle.

“We’re just at the front end of what’s coming for the homeless community,” Dade added. “I really think that as a society, and as we started to think about this virus, we thought about ourselves, and then the elderly and now we’re looking at the homeless. It’s just this invisible population that really goes unnoticed unless there’s a voice out there advocating for them.”

Under a statewide directive issued earlier this month, all retailers in Michigan have stopped accepting empty bottles or cans for their usual 10-cent deposit. And Dade said that inadvertently cut a significant revenue stream for the homeless with nowhere else to turn.

Kim Coleman, director of Lansing’s Department of Human Relations and Community Services, said the city has temporarily put up a few families into local hotels as broader efforts continue this week to find other options for temporary locations to house the homeless.

And hindsight is 20/20, she said.

“We’re going to be much smarter, and much faster and far more strategic after all of this,” Coleman added. “We’re working to help solidify plans. Everyone is working hard and after all of this is over, we’re all going to be much stronger together should any other crisis occur here.”

Charitable meal services — including those at City Rescue Mission, New Hope Community Center, Advent House, Salvation Army and the city’s Mobile Food Pantry — have largely continued as normal, though all of them closed dining rooms in favor of a to-go box format.

With some help from Lansing City Councilman Brandon Betz, several local volunteers also established the Lansing Area Mutual Aid network last week. The expanding local collective simply aims to connect existing community resources to those in need, as quickly as possible.

“At the city level, we’ve been talking about giving housing vouchers to those who need them or opening up space that can be used at hotels,” Betz added. “We’ve also been talking about hand sanitation stations to make sure people are better able to stay clean and protected at this time.”

Joan Jackson Johnson, Coleman’s predecessor, still volunteers in Lansing and helped to pass out meals at Advent House in recent weeks. Cancro said three weekends ago, they served about 200 meals together. Two weekends ago, it was 300 meals. Last weekend? More than 500.

“One of the biggest challenges is the lack of volunteers. People are afraid of the homeless population and what they may be exposed to, so they’re just disappearing,” Jackson-Johnson said. “Things are usually tight during the good times for these folks, so they’re not better now.”

How to help

• The City Rescue Mission has stopped accepting all personal donations from individuals for fear of viral contamination but still welcomes monetary support online at bearescuer.org.

• New Hope Community Center may need more food in the near future but right now needs sanitizer, cleaning products, gloves and masks.

• Advent House needs volunteers, including those willing to pack and deliver sack lunches and dinners for the homeless. Call (517) 485-4722.

• Visit facebook.com/lansingmutualaid for more information about Lansing Mutual Aid.

• The Islamic Society of Greater Lansing and Care Free Medical will provide free boxed lunches, catered by Sultan’s Mediterranean Cuisine, from 12-1 p.m. on April 2 at the Care Free Medical Parking Lot, 110 W. Michigan Ave., Suite 1200.

City Pulse also needs your support now more than ever. Advertising — almost all our revenue —  has fallen sharply because of closures due to the coronavirus. Our staff is working seven days a week to help keep you informed. Please do what you can at this time to contribute to the City Pulse Fund. All donations are tax-deductible. 

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