Waters: As shelters close and cheap motels fill, city’s homeless struggle to find sanctuary in a pandemic

By , Special to The Daily Memphian Updated: March 27, 2020 12:39 PM CT | Published: March 26, 2020 4:00 AM CT
David Waters
Special to The Daily Memphian

David Waters

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

On a good day, Dinishia Jones could make $300 in tips as a server on Beale Street. Even the slow shifts brought in something.

Last Thursday was not a good day. It wasn’t even a slow day. When Dinishia worked the lunch shift, no one came in.

“We didn’t turn one table,” said Dinishia, who has worked four years as a server at King’s Palace Cafe. “Not one. I’ve never seen that.”

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The next day she got laid off. That day, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland declared a state of civil emergency, closing restaurant dining rooms and bars. 

“My income went from not much to nothing.”

This was the time of year Dinishia counted on to get back on her feet – literally and figuratively.

Beale Street crawls through January and February, except on game days. The street starts moving again in March. Customers fill the restaurant for March Madness, Africa in April, Memphis in May, and sometimes Grizzlies playoff games.

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That was before the COVID-19 pandemic started shutting down the city.

Last Thursday, when Dinishia’s income suddenly vanished, she and her son, Therron, moved back into her car.

“I really needed things to get better. They just got worse,” said Dinishia, a 39-year-old diabetic who spent three weeks in Methodist North after stepping on a large piece of glass in January.

“I didn’t think they could get any worse.”



It’s difficult for a woman to find space at a homeless shelter in Memphis. It’s nearly impossible for her to find shelter with her teenage son, even under normal circumstances.

Efforts to mitigate the spread of coronavirus have caused nearly all of the city’s handful of homeless shelters to close, partially or entirely.

People of faith and good will are scrambling to fill the void. They’re also struggling with a new challenge.

“How do you balance the call to offer Christian hospitality with the real concerns that such hospitality is putting people at risk?” said Dr. Pete Gathje, academic dean at Memphis Theological Seminary.

Gathje is co-director of Manna House, a “place of hospitality” for the homeless in Midtown. It’s not a shelter, but it does provide coffee, clothing, bathroom breaks, showers and conversation.

“We believe compassion is contagious,” it says on Manna House’s website.

Unfortunately, so is the coronavirus.

Monday morning, Gathje told his guests that Manna House would be open only one morning each week to reduce the chances of “social transmission” of the virus.

He also told them the ministry no longer will offer coffee or showers or a place to gather and talk and get out of the rain.

“I can’t find a bathroom with restaurants closed. Where am I supposed to wash my hands now?” one man asked Gathje.

“Where do they expect us to go to ‘shelter in place’?” another man asked.

Gathje didn’t have any answers.

He knows the closings of libraries, community centers, restaurants, churches and shelters will make it even more difficult for many who are already on the edge and have nowhere else to go.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Gathje said. “The heart of hospitality is to recognize and welcome and be with people who already are isolated and alienated being on the streets.”

Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, faced the same painful decision last week.

Anderson, is founding executive director of Room in the Inn, now in its 10th year.

Room in the Inn is a network of nearly five dozen congregations that feed and shelter up to 80 women and men every night from October to April.

Anderson decided to close the ministry two weeks early because of the coronavirus. The last night of shelter was March 16.

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“Even with all of the extra precautions we were taking, our guests and many of our volunteers were in the groups considered most vulnerable to COVID-19,” Anderson said.

“Our congregations were genuinely hesitant to stop providing shelter, but how do we keep doing what we’re called to do when we know we’re putting our guests and our volunteers at risk?”



Dinishia and her son have been at risk for months.

She moved into her 1996 Buick Skylark in early January after fleeing domestic violence.

“People ask how you can live in your car,” she said. “I didn’t have nowhere else to go. And I got peace in my car.”

Therron, her 19-year-old son, was living with someone else at the time. He had completed his first semester at Southwest Tennessee Community College, but had to drop out in January for lack of funds.

When he found out his mother was living in her car, he joined her.

“I’m not going to let my mama stay by herself in no car,” he said. “She’s gotta be my first priority.”

Dinishia cut her right foot on a piece of glass at work in January, but she needed the tip money so she kept working. The foot got worse. Therron finally convinced her to go to the ER.

“I’d already had my middle toe on my other foot amputated,” she said. “I begged the doctor not to cut off my foot.”

He didn’t. Dinishia was in the hospital for three weeks. Therron stayed with her. While she was recovering, a hospital aide gave her the name of a minister to call when she got out.

Dinishia was discharged in early February. She and Therron moved back into her car. After a couple of very cold and rainy nights in her green four-door shelter, she called the number.

“I didn’t know what to make of her story,” said Rev. Elaine Sanford. “It was crazy. But it was pouring rain when she called, and I was trying to get home, so I told her to give me an hour and I’d call her back.”

Sanford, pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church, has heard a lot of crazy stories. She is founding director of Her Faith Ministries, a nonprofit organization that helps women who have lost their jobs, their providers or their family support systems.

Sanford called back. Therron answered the phone. He was whispering. He said he didn’t want to wake his mother. She’d finally gone to sleep with her foot propped up.

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“On the bed?” Sanford asked.

“No, on the dash,” Therron said.

“I thought maybe they’d found a place to stay,” Sanford remembered. “But they were still in the car.”


Room in the Inn is the city’s second largest homeless shelter, and one of the few that take adult women.

The Memphis Union Mission, the largest shelter, is still operating but accepts men only.

The YWCA, which operates the only emergency domestic violence shelter in Shelby County, remains open for up to 42 women and some children under 18.

The Salvation Army Single Women’s Residence and the Missionaries of Charity take in women, but both have stopped accepting new people.

So has Calvary Rescue Mission for men. Like other homeless ministries, Calvary has asked volunteers to stay away for now.

“That hurts. Our 400 volunteers provide about half our meals,” said director Bob Freudiger. “We even stopped bringing in guest preachers for our daily chapels. First thing they want to do is shake your hand.”

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Mayor Strickland’s “Safer at Home” order exempts “individuals experiencing homelessness.” It also strongly urges them “to seek shelter, and governmental and other entities are strongly urged to make such shelter available as soon as possible and to the maximum extent practicable.”

That won’t be easy.

MIFA, the Hospitality Hub, the Community Alliance for the Homeless and others are scrambling to fill the gaps.

“We don’t have enough beds generally, but even in the worst weather, we’d be able to squeeze in everyone who wanted a bed. Not now. Not with this virus,” said D. Cheré Bradshaw, executive director of the Community Alliance for the Homeless.

When Room in the Inn closed suddenly last week, the Hospitality Hub of Memphis reached out to one of its founding members, First Presbyterian Church.

The Hub partners with 200 other agencies to help people exit homelessness.

About two in five of the people they help are women. But only 6% of the shelter beds in Memphis are for women. About half of those were provided each night by Room in the Inn.

“The main thing First Presbyterian does is outreach to the disenfranchised,” said Kelcey Johnson, the Hub’s executive director. “Their location is one that our guests are accustomed to visiting for help.”

The Downtown church agreed to set up an emergency “pop-up” shelter for women in its fellowship hall. It opened Tuesday March 17.

“We understand that operating a shelter at this time is difficult and we do not take it lightly,” said Rev. Kori McMurtry, First Presbyterian’s senior pastor.

“It’s hard to figure out how to protect me from you and you from me, but we’re going to do what we can to protect these women.”

Staff from the Hub and Room in the Inn run the shelter.

The church asked one of its elders, Dr. Jeff Warren, a physician and Memphis City Council member, to make sure the emergency shelter met the CDC’s pandemic guidelines.

That includes ensuring that beds are a safe distance apart, linens are cleaned every day, and the space is regularly disinfected.

The church is closed to members and access to the shelter is restricted.

It’s a temporary and imperfect solution.

The Hub and church leaders are working to find a larger space that includes showers. That will allow the women to shelter in place.

“We are two weeks behind this virus and we’re getting no help from the federal government,” Warren, a member of the city and county COVID-19 task force, said Tuesday evening.

“This is a slow-rolling disaster, and no one is coming to help us. If we work together as a community and achieve 65% social isolation, we may be able to thread this needle and mitigate the threat.”


Dinishia and her son moved out of her car and into a motel for a month in mid-February, courtesy of Her Faith Ministries.

She went back to work. He started looking for a job.

“I just needed a little help to get back on my feet and get my tips coming in again,” Dinishia said. “Things always pick up in March.”

On March 11, Dinishia and Therron checked out of the motel provided by Her Faith and into another one across the street. Dinishai paid $71 for a weeks’ rent.

Five days later, on March 17, Mayor Strickland declared a state of emergency. ”I encourage you to continue to-go orders and support our local restaurants,” Strickland told the public.

Servers don’t make tips on to-go orders. Two days later, Dinishia’s tables were empty. The next day, she and Therron moved out of the motel and back into her car.

The next day the car wouldn’t start. She called Rev. Sanford.

By then, cheap motels were filled with coronovirus refugees.

“People are getting desperate,” Sanford said. “Our phone is ringing and ringing and ringing. But we couldn’t just leave them in a car.”

Dinishia and Therron have been living in Sanford’s church office since Saturday. There’s a microwave, a small fridge and a couple of mattresses.

Dinishia and Therron are both looking for new jobs.

It’s a temporary and imperfect solution.

“I’m grateful for the help,” Dinishia said, “but I’d rather be serving others right now than having someone serve me.”

COVID-19 in Memphis & Shelby County: March


Hospitality Hub Room in the Inn Her Faith Ministries Manna House


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