Pandemic stretches help for homeless

Social distancing guidelines force centers to limit services

By , Special to the Daily Memphian Updated: April 06, 2020 10:39 AM CT | Published: April 05, 2020 4:00 AM CT

The modern day pandemic is stretching the resources of a homeless ministry named for a nun who died nursing victims of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic.

Constance Abbey is giving away about 71% more cups of brewed coffee four days a week to their “neighbors” – street people. That’s 240 cups up from 140. They also are feeding meals to about double the number of people.

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“Our doorbell is ringing constantly,” said Margery Wolcott, co-founder of Constance Abbey at 209 Hamlin in the Medical District. “People want meals, clothing – not just the hours we we’re open. It’s busy.”

The increase is a result of other facilities limiting homeless services in order to adhere to social distancing guidelines and to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

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Some residential sites and addiction recovery groups have stopped accepting new people. The Hospitality Hub, a center that connects homeless people with resources designed to help them out of homelessness, reduced its hours and limited the number of people who could enter its facilities at one time.

The Hub has 914 active clients. According to point-in-time data collected in January 2019, there were 1,325 homeless individuals in Memphis and Shelby County.

“We didn’t have a network that was built for people to shelter in place,” said Jarad Bingham with Hospitality Hub. “In two days, we had to learn to run it differently. It’s complicated. We’ve stepped into the vacuum, but others have shut down.”

Bingham expected a surge in homelessness after nonessential businesses closed, straining people economically. He hasn’t yet seen evidence of that, however, and believes community measures such as MLGW temporarily suspending disconnections for non-payment are helping people stay in their residences.

To adhere to social distancing guidelines, the Hub is issuing more but limited numbers of hotel vouchers to get the homeless off the street. That’s in lieu of housing them in a group where the virus could spread to more people.

“Homeless people can’t social distance because they don’t have homes,” Bingham said.

“One woman with four kids came in,” Bingham said. “Her partner had been arrested, and he was the provider. Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be difficult to find bridge housing.”

But fewer places have fewer beds now.

The woman was given a hotel voucher, however she couldn’t be put into active case management where counselors help individuals identify and overcome root causes of homelessness.

A little more than half of the Hub’s shifts have been shut down and “we’re doing case management at home, not face-to-face,” Bingham said.

Manna House, a nonresidential facility that offers coffee, meals, showers and hygiene items at 1268 Jefferson, cut its hospitality days from three to one. Officials also are thinking through how to responsibly restore certain services.

“We changed our hours a bit. We’re not open as much as we were, but we’re still open Monday evenings for take away meals,” said Peter Gathje, a founder and co-director. “We served close to 100 people this past Monday.

“But with coffee, people like to hang out and talk. We didn’t think it was a good idea for people to congregate.”

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The Abbey offers four hospitality days a week. Prior to the pandemic reaching the United States, coffee, sandwiches and showers attracted 25 to 40 people. That number is now 60 to 70 people, Wolcott said. All 38 shower slots are used each day. Each person gets a clean set of clothes, and the Abbey takes the dirty ones.

“Lots and lots of laundry,” said Wolcott, who runs the non-residential Abbey with her husband Roger.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, near the Abbey, was offering breakfast for homeless people but has stopped due to social distancing and other pandemic guidelines, Wolcott said.

“So we fill in.”

The same pandemic that is driving people away from each other physically, however, seems to be driving people to help others less fortunate, Wolcott said.

“A lot of people have come up and ask, ‘How can we help? What do you need?’ There’s more collaboration,” she said.

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Constance Abbey Manna House Hospitality Hub
Toni Lepeska

Toni Lepeska

Toni Lepeska is a freelance reporter for The Daily Memphian. The 32-year veteran of newspaper journalism covers a diversity of topics, always seeking to reveal the human story behind the news. Toni, who grew up in Cayce, Mississippi, is a graduate of the University of Mississippi. To learn more, visit


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