OC Homeless Organizations Get Creative During the Pandemic

November 23, 2020 Updated: November 30, 2020

Organizations that provide support services to homeless individuals in Orange County have had to get creative this year to help keep the community housed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Homelessness is essentially a full-time job of survival for most people,” said David Gillanders, executive director of Pathways of Hope, during a recent roundtable addressing the issue.

“Without housing, you cannot solve any other issues for somebody who is vulnerable and on the streets or seeing recurring bouts of homelessness.”

Hosted by United to End Homelessness, the Nov. 19 online discussion brought together a wide range of representatives from local organizations who said they’re united in focusing on a “housing first” strategy to keep people in place during the pandemic.

Part of this strategy includes keeping people in their residences through financial assistance and other services.

Gillanders said his organization’s food distribution program has gone up from 30 per day to 150 per day during the pandemic. The group had to stop allowing recipients to choose their own food from the pantry and instead is distributing prepackaged food bags. Requests for rental assistance have gone through the roof.

Shay Sorrells, chief program officer at Orangewood Foundation, said that during the pandemic, her organization has seen a 250 percent increase in the need for groceries. The foundation serves 18- to 24-year-olds who require assistance with housing and other needs.

“The biggest thing we’re seeing with the young population that we’re [assisting is] with the switch to online schooling,” she said. “A lot of them were very unprepared to switch. We spent a lot of time helping support them, and purchasing cameras and all of these things we need for Zoom to be able to be successful.”

Friendship Shelter provides year-round shelter for homeless adults, and helps them find permanent housing. Karyn Hay, the company’s housing civilization coordinator, said her clients have struggled to adjust to changes to their routines amid the COVID-19 restrictions.

“Our clients still do ask all the time how soon this is all going to be over. They’re eager to get back to normal,” she said.

Case managers are no longer able to visit clients in their homes or join them at doctors’ appointments. Instead, they have to talk over the phone or meet in a park with masks on, staying 6 feet apart.

The level of isolation for at-risk individuals has become a concern.

“To move into your own place can sometimes be a little frightening and a little isolating, and so I know with COVID, isolation is certainly something that we’ve been battling with a lot,” said Becks Heyhoe, executive director of United to End Homelessness.

Hay said one of the most rewarding services she provided to a client was helping him with the paperwork to buy an emotional support dog, knowing that he would always have someone there for him, regardless of the pandemic situation.

Friendship Shelter has also dropped off art supplies to clients’ homes and encouraged them to participate in art contests and other special events.

Orangewood Foundation’s Sorrells said a young man asked her organization for help after his truck was stolen, with all of his tools for a new small business inside. Instead of helping him with rent, the foundation helped him replace the supplies needed for the business.

However, a lot of other young people simply need rental assistance. More than 80 percent of the youth in Orangewood’s transitional housing had their employment affected by the pandemic, either with reduced hours or lost jobs.

Fortunately, a kind individual came forward to help with the massive cost.

“We were able to seek a generous donor who paid their rent for the past six months,” Sorrells said. “So we haven’t had any leave the program during that time.”

The Orangewood Foundation hosted an outside Thanksgiving meal this year and distributed meals that day. The foundation will also hold a holiday gift drive.

Orangewood and the other organizations urged the public to consider volunteering their time or donating toward the homeless community, especially during the holidays.

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