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Serving the Homeless, Sick, and Food Insecure in the Face of a Pandemic

Ministry leaders employ faith and adaptability to continue serving their communities during a time of unprecedented restrictions on mobility and gatherings.

Volunteers of Adventist Community Services Greater Washington sort cans while wearing gloves and masks.

Volunteers of Adventist Community Services Greater Washington sort cans while wearing gloves and masks. Photo: Kenneth Flemmer/ACSGW

Social distancing. It’s a term that has become ubiquitous in light of the coronavirus disease pandemic. According to the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, “Social distancing is deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness. Staying at least six feet away from other people lessens your chances of catching COVID-19.” Unprecedented, widespread measures have been enacted to decrease gatherings and increase physical space between individuals in public spaces.

While society at large has taken a metaphorical detour in terms of its normal operation with the closing of businesses and schools, the needs of the marginalized remain — many are still without homes and/or jobs, require medical attention aside from care related to COVID-19, or need food and supplies for their families.

“It’s important for ministries who serve the vulnerable to continue their ministries in the middle of a global pandemic because when people are the most vulnerable, they need the hope and assurance these ministries provide,” said Bonita Shields, vice president for ministries of the North American Division.

Among the constant news coverage of the coronavirus disease cases, deaths, and responses have been stories from local community members, religious organizations, and charities serving and looking for ways to help others.

The following are glimpses into three services operating within the North American Division that have remained committed to serving the disenfranchised population in their communities as they face daily evolving challenges and the potential dangers presented by the coronavirus disease.

A client of Adventist Community Services Greater Washington checks in before collecting a food basket. Volunteers of ACSGW wear gloves and masks to help in an effort to do all they can to stop the spread of the coronavirus disease.

A client of Adventist Community Services Greater Washington checks in before collecting a food basket. Volunteers of ACSGW wear gloves and masks for the safety of the staff and clients. Photo: Kenneth Flemmer/ACSGW

Sheltering the Homeless

Since January 3, the Omega Seventh-day Adventist Church in New Haven, Connecticut, has turned its fellowship hall into a warming center for some of the city’s homeless population. Every day, up to 70 people, known as clients, have benefitted from a warm place to stay overnight and two meals — dinner and breakfast. The clients also have access to showers through the Adventist Community Service “Showers of Blessings” mobile shower van. Yoga mats and pillows for sleeping are also provided by the church.

The operation is guided by ordinances set by the city of New Haven.

The alarming influx of COVID-19 cases prompted New Haven to make adjustments to services provided to the city’s marginalized population. The warming center was directed to make changes that coincide with recommended hygienic practices and social distancing measures, including maintaining six feet between clients.

“We had to reduce our occupancy by half,” said Shaunette James-Marquis, member of the Omega Seventh-day Adventist Church, a professional social worker, and director of the warming center. “We took away the yoga mats and pillows. Our clients now sleep on chairs. They’re understanding.”

New Haven also sends a doctor to the center every other day to take the clients’ temperatures to help spot symptoms related to the virus. At the time of this reporting, none of the centers’ clients had contracted COVID-19.

The number of volunteers has decreased. Many were students attending Yale University, an ivy league university located near the church that also moved all its courses online due to the disease – sending students to their homes. Two elderly women who were faithful volunteers have followed recommendations given for their age group, which is considered “high-risk” for contracting the disease. The volunteers who remain wear masks and gloves.

“I’m great, wonderful, simply amazed and blessed. I’ve learned so many lessons from this. I tell myself, ‘If he called me, He’ll qualify and protect me during this time,’” said James-Marquis.

A client of the Omega Seventh-day Adventist Church’s warming center enters the “Showers of Blessing” mobile shower van that’s provided by Adventist Community Services Greater New York Conference.

A client of the Omega Seventh-day Adventist Church’s warming center enters the “Showers of Blessing” mobile shower van, which is provided by Adventist Community Services Greater New York Conference. Photo: Kimberly Luste Maran/NAD Communication

James-Marquis says the clients are feeling more restless with having fewer places to spend time during the day due to citywide closures and social distancing protocols. Many are lining up three to four hours before the center opens its doors because they don’t have anywhere else to go.

Anxiety is also high among the clients because the warming center was only designed to give shelter during the region’s coldest months. The plan was to end the center’s services on April 15. According to James-Marquis, they have been put on notice from the city of New Haven that they may need to extend operations depending on the situation with COVID-19 in the city. Until then, the clients are nervous about knowing where they’ll be able to shelter at night after having the church as a refuge for four months, in addition to living without a home, especially during a pandemic.

“Most are showing signs of separation anxiety. I remind my staff to maintain patience and compassion,” said James-Marquis.

Safely Treating the Sick

“A community that’s gone through trauma has learned how to rally together. They know the only way to get through is together,” said Elisabeth Gundersen, president of MEDSPIRE, referring to residents of Paradise, California, a community that experienced devastating wildfires 18 months ago.

MEDSPIRE is a mobile health clinic that formed in the immediate aftermath of the “Paradise Fires.” It provided medical care since health care facilities had been destroyed. The area has since gained three primary care facilities and one urgent care clinic.

Prior to social distancing directives from local officials, the clinic operated twice a month with services provided by doctors, nurse practitioners, physicians assistants, social workers, mental health professionals, paramedics, and a pharmacist. The clinic served as a way to triage urgent, persistent needs and help patients link to a primary care provider. For others, the clinic became a long-term medical home.

Since the clinic is a mobile unit and not an official “brick and mortar” business, it is not considered an “essential business” that is allowed to remain open. When preparing for their clinic that was scheduled for March 22, leaders of MEDSPIRE did not want to increase risk of exposure to its volunteers and patients by operating in close proximity, even if the clinic was outdoors or functioned as a “drive-up” service.

In order to continue serving the community, MEDSPIRE transitioned to a “telemedical clinic” where patients called a number to share their symptoms with either Gundersen, who is also an adult nurse practitioner, or Theodore Muller, MEDSPIRE’s medical director who has more than 20 years’ experience as an emergency doctor. The two provided guidance on how patients could treat symptoms of various ailments.

“The name of the game is to keep people at home. Whatever we can do to help ‘flatten the curve’ by keeping people in their homes will be our goal. We want to help keep people out of urgent care and the emergency room,” said Gundersen, speaking on the state of overrun urgent care facilities and ERs in cities throughout the U.S. that are experiencing high volumes of COVID-19 cases.

None of the 14 patients who called with medical concerns on March 22 had symptoms related to the coronavirus disease.

Another factor that contributed to the transition to telemedicine was the desire to donate the clinic’s personal protective equipment (PPE) to the closest hospital in the area — approximately 40 minutes from Paradise.

“We don’t want to use PPE, there’s a greater need for that in hospitals,” said Gundersen.

MEDSPIRE’s clinic also offered to drop off supplies or shop for groceries for the elderly or high-risk residents. The clinic’s paramedic now operates as a shopper for patients of this demographic.

“If you’re elderly, the less contact you have with the public the better. People who are 80 years old can’t go to six stores looking for flour, but we can. Our paramedic went to 10 stores in neighboring towns and even searched online. We had trouble locating some supplies, but we’re all healthy people who can run around," said Gundersen. "It’s nice to be able to give people something they don’t have to pay for or go out to get for themselves.”

“There was one wheelchair-bound older gentleman who has been struggling with chronic bronchitis since before the COVID-19 pandemic began. He attempted to go shopping but was asked to leave due to his heavy coughing. We were able to pick up his groceries for him,” said Gundersen.

The clinic used a recent, sizeable contribution to purchase supplies for distribution. The supplies were used to create kits, which included vitamins C and D, granola bars, nuts, apples, oranges, low sodium canned food, coffee, paper towels, and hand soap. Moving forward, MEDSPIRE will also shop according to lists provided by clients.

At the time of this reporting, Gundersen indicated the clinic will continue operating as a telemedicine and supply delivery service for its community on a weekly basis.

“This is how we’re going to practice moving forward,” said Gundersen. “We still have an option to see people in their home if it’s necessary. It’s my nature to just want to jump and run out to whomever needs help. There’s a desire to help our neighbors, but we could be endangering them if we’re not careful. It’s important to be mindful how we help and maintain social distancing wherever possible.”

A woman loads up her trunk with food from Adventist Community Services Greater Washington for three families.

A woman loads up her trunk with food from Adventist Community Services Greater Washington for three families. Photo: Kenneth Flemmer/ACSGW

Feeding Families

Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington (ACSGW) operates many services for low-income families of Montgomery County, Maryland, including a free clothing closet, computer literacy classes, ESL courses, and a food pantry. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, however, the only service the center has been able to run its food pantry, albeit with some strain.

In recent years, ACSGW has operated one of the strongest food pantries in the Washington D.C. region, according to Kenneth Flemmer, executive director of ACSGW. While others in the area operate on a monthly basis, ACSGW has its food services available on a weekly basis by appointment.

“It’s like a little supermarket,” said Flemmer.

The center curates baskets with 30 pounds of food, which can usually feed a family of four for a week. The baskets have pasta with pasta sauce or rice and beans, as well as canned or fresh vegetables, fruit, and a baked good. The produce and baked goods are collected by “food rescue volunteers” through the Community Food Rescue organization in Montgomery County. Surplus, unused food is gathered from stores for pantries such as the one operated by ACSGW. Staple foods such as rice, beans, pasta, and canned goods are provided by local food banks and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As more businesses close in response to guidance issued by local officials, many families’ sources of income have been temporarily stripped away, leaving them in greater need of support.

“These past couple of weeks have seen about a 50 percent – sometimes 100 percent – increase overall in use of the pantry with a third of clients being people who have never used the ACSGW pantry before,” said Flemmer. “[I believe] this trend is going to continue for some time.”

As of April 1, ACSGW has provided more than 27,000 pounds of staples, produce, dairy, and baked goods to 425 families. Some clients are furloughed from their jobs without pay, other families have children who would normally get free meals from school. With the increased clientele comes an increased need of supplies, which have begun to decrease throughout the region.

“There seems to be supply bottlenecks emerging that could limit the capacity of pantries like ACSGW to serve at the community level. I did not anticipate such a rapid deterioration of the regional food safety net,” said Flemmer.

Where Flemmer was once confident in the pantry’s ability to always have staple foods to distribute, he’s now communicating a need for donations.

“The concern is the limited supply of The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) shelf staple foods. The supply chain will take some time to meet sharply increased demand,” said Flemmer. “In the meantime, it is very probable that TEFAP foods will be inadequate and could run out before the next delivery in three weeks. Help will be needed to fill the ‘staples’ gap.”

A volunteer of Adventist Community Services Greater Washington sorts fresh produce.

A volunteer of Adventist Community Services Greater Washington sorts fresh produce. Photo: Kenneth Flemmer/ACSGW

Other food items seem to be in great supply, allowing ACSGW to share items with other local pantries.

“Fortunately, the many ACSGW food rescue volunteers … are robust. This week the ACSGW Pantry had over a dozen different veggies and fruits, plus baked goods to add to the shelf staple basket,” said Flemmer.

ACSGW is facing significant challenges. Flemmer says if a member of his staff contracts the disease the center will close. The center is also heavily dependent on volunteers, four of which are elderly and are unable to volunteer. Others are able to come, but only on an inconsistent basis. Further, the increase of service needed, and the safety and cleaning materials required to keep staff and clients safe are adding $200 in costs a day. In spite of the obstacles, Flemmer says the center will continue to do all it can, for as long as it can, to help families in need.

“We got to do something even though we’re in a period of extreme isolation. We have to keep reaching out. We have to keep network alive,” said Flemmer. “You can always pray, but you can’t stop there.”


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