SOUTHERN INDIANA — Community agencies are looking for new ways to provide shelter to the homeless population amid a statewide order to “stay at home.”

On Monday, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb issued four separate orders to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), one of which mandated that Hoosiers stay at home for the next two weeks unless going out for essential things like work, getting groceries or medicine or helping to care for someone ill.

But those in the community who don’t have permanent housing may not have a place to isolate to help contain the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and living on the street sometimes without regular access to soap and water to wash hands can put this population at higher risk.

“Think of the stress and pressure all of us are on and being shut into our houses,” Barb Anderson, executive director at Haven House Services Inc., said. “Well, what if you don’t have a house to be shut into? Where do you go, what do you do? You’re not welcome anywhere.”

Anderson hosted a conference virtual meeting Tuesday with representatives from more than a dozen local community agencies, to discuss steps needed to help get more people sheltered during this global public health crisis. The director also talked with Indiana Housing & Community Development Authority. She said what’s needed is for the state to develop policies and loosen up some state resources and funding to help pay for emergency shelter.

What that could look like, Anderson doesn’t know yet. But she’s not afraid to think outside the box.

“We have empty hotels all across the state,” she said. “People are not traveling right now. Why can’t we pay those hotels to house those people? They would have showers, most rooms have microwaves, they would have access to information on the television.

“And if they’re on the street sick, they touch the same door handles we touch, they sit on park benches that we sit on. The exposure risk for them and for the community at large I think is heightened, so I think it would behoove us to be compassionate.”

At Catalyst Rescue Mission in Jeffersonville, Southern Indiana’s only homeless shelter, manager Paul Stensrud said the more than 70 residents are hunkering down. They’re only allowed to go one or two at a time for things like groceries or medicine; if they leave without management knowing where they have been, they won’t be allowed back in during the current mandated isolation period of two weeks.

A tent which holds 20-plus people has been set up outside for any new residents who seek shelter; Stensrud said they set it up a few days ago, to help prevent an infection within the shelter proper.

“It’s working well,” he said, adding that it’s “basically everybody that’s new that needs shelter that’s willing to stay inside until April 7, when we are lifted from the ban.” This also means that new women and children cannot be accepted at the shelter at this time; management keeps the populations separate and the tent has been designated for single men.

But the state and countywide restrictions have also put a strain on Catalyst Rescue Mission, which is now cooking three meals a day for residents since they are not allowed to go to the nearby Community Kitchen for lunch and return. While Stensrud said he’s grateful for local restaurants, which have donated meals, the shelter is in need of staples like cereal, bread, instant oatmeal, grits, pasta and pasta sauce.

He said they also haven’t been able to get other essentials, due in part to runs at the grocery stores on certain items.

“It’s making it very difficult on certain days because we can’t just go out and buy case levels of stuff because of finances,” he said. “It has been a challenge to get supplies.”

Community Kitchen on Spring Street is still offering lunch every weekday and Stensrud, with homeless outreach mission Exit Zero, is still bringing bag lunches to a parking lot on West Maple Street every Sunday at 3.

He’s practicing social distancing with the folks there, asking them to come one at a time to get the food from the truck and staying at least six feet apart. While daily survival is a top priority, and with libraries now closed to the public, some of those he meets on the streets don’t know what the coronavirus is, what it means or what people should be doing to prevent the spread.

“We have many that are just not aware of what’s going on,” he said. “So we’ve been able to educate and just let them know the proper hand-washing... most are still very grateful to be getting a meal.”

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