Coronavirus in Columbus: Keeping the Vulnerable Safe

Suzanne Goldsmith
Alice Dickerson with a friend (who asked not to be identified) at the All People's Fresh Market

At Wesley Glen retirement community, some residents, starved for company, have begun eating dinner just inside the doors of their rooms so they can talk to—or at least see—their neighbors. At All People’s Fresh Market on Columbus’ South Side, those in need of free food who once came inside to “shop” and mingle with volunteers must now wait behind the wheel of a car while a gloved staffer or volunteer loads fresh produce and staples into their trunk. In rural Perry County, school buses are following their usual routes, filled not with students but with meals that the drivers leave at the homes of children who normally depend on the federal school lunch program for a well-balanced meal. 

And there are stories from the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis that are more heartbreaking. To decrease density, Huckleberry House, a shelter and independent living program for homeless teens and young adults in crisis, has had to send some who were staying in its shelter back to families or households that are anything but stable. At Goodwill Columbus, some developmentally disabled adults accustomed to spending their days together in habilitation centers are being asked to stay away, for reasons some may not understand. And at the overcrowded Marion Correctional Institution, some inmates—many of them older and with health issues—are reportedly sleeping with pillows over their faces to protect themselves from what could be a deadly illness. 

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Fear of the coronavirus and the isolation imposed by social distancing are hard on even the most affluent or comfortable among us. But for those who are already living in poverty or crisis, who because of age or disability require help to carry out basic tasks, or whose lives are already harsh and prone to isolation, the measures needed to control the pandemic are taking a tremendous toll.

Window Visits

With 2.8 million older residents, Ohio has the sixth-largest elderly population in the nation, says Ursel McElroy, director of the Ohio Department of Aging. The impact of the virus itself is greatest on those 65 and older, who are at higher risk for severe illness or even death. But for many elderly Ohioans, the impact of social distancing is also severe. With nursing homes and assisted living facilities closed to visitors, other than in end-of-life cases, and with residents generally barred from leaving the buildings, family members now conduct “window visits,” waving at their loved ones through a glass barrier. 

Inside such facilities, group activities and congregate meals have been replaced by in-room eating and one-to-one or small-group activities, but agencies are having difficulty keeping up with staffing needs, says Pete Van Runkle, executive director of the Ohio Health Care Association. Many nursing home employees and home health aides must stay home to care for children during school closures; others are taking extra precautions and self-isolating after worrisome symptoms, for fear of infecting the elderly. “There’s this kind of lurking danger all over the place, and our members and their employees are really grappling with that mentally,” he says. “We’ve had members who have had to increase pay in order to get people to come to work.”

Meanwhile, at-home elderly can no longer visit senior centers for group meals and socialization. After closing 40 dining centers, LifeCare Alliance has beefed up its Meals-on-Wheels program to bring food to the homes of seniors, developmentally disabled adults and people with HIV or AIDS.

Tight Quarters

On April 4, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in an Ohio prison inmate was reported at the overcrowded Marion Correctional, and the number quickly began to grow. The difficulty of social distancing in prison is so great that on April 7, Gov. Mike DeWine announced plans to begin releasing certain nonviolent offenders who were close to their release dates or were aged and in poor health, in order to relieve crowding.

Prior to the pandemic, homeless shelters in Columbus were at peak capacity, in part because of the region’s lack of affordable housing. Staff are now bracing for an increase in the population due to job losses, even as they seek ways to spread out their clientele to prevent infection. At the Downtown YMCA, mats spaced 6 feet apart on the floor of a gym accommodate men who have been moved there in order to create room for families to spread out at the Van Buren shelter on the West Side. 

At the end of March, a coalition of homelessness organizations took over a North Side hotel with plans to use it as a quarantine site for homeless individuals with the virus. Community Shelter Board executive director Michelle Heritage says she expects quarantine space will ultimately be needed for nearly 400 homeless households.

Fighting Isolation

Sonya Thesing, director of Huckleberry House, says the 50-year-old organization has never before had to turn away a teen in crisis, but is now sending away those who have access to any alternative place to sleep in order to keep safe those already in their care. She worries about those teens, as well as the young adults in the agency’s transitional living program who are housed in single apartments—including two new mothers with infants—who are no longer able to meet in person with counselors and social workers. “That is really heartbreaking, because we know that the key to success is human relationship.” 

Thesing also points out that teens who are living on the streets often do not have cell service and depend on libraries and Wi-Fi service at fast food restaurants—now closed due to the virus—for internet access. 

Lack of internet access is also a concern in rural counties, says Misty Harmon, an educator with the OSU Extension in Perry County. Many of the people she works with have unreliable cell service and can’t afford the internet at home. “When we’re telling everybody to Skype and FaceTime your relatives and all of that, and you don’t have that ability, it compounds that sense of isolation,” she says. Reduced bus routes and restrictions on the number of people on a bus similar to those COTA has imposed are also making it more difficult for rural residents to get to grocery stores. While some school districts are distributing federally funded school lunches via school bus, others are handing them out in a drive-thru setting in public parks.

Needing a Hug

When Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the closure of day facilities serving developmentally or intellectually disabled adults in settings of more than 10 on March 21, Goodwill Columbus was forced to find a new way to support 500 clients who come to their four centers daily, in addition to another 130 for whom the agency provides recreation by taking them on excursions in the community. Many of Goodwill’s clients have underlying health issues and could be more vulnerable to bad outcomes if they contract the virus.

“The three words we have really focused on have been ‘agile,’ ‘pivot’ and ‘innovative,’” says Margie Pizzuti, the organization’s president and CEO. Staff members are visiting clients in their homes, especially in cases where their caregivers work during the day, as well as reorganizing clients into small groups. 

It’s been hard on the people they serve, Pizzuti says, pointing out that understanding change is often a challenge for those with developmental disabilities—and that separation is also hard. “They want to hug each other, they want to hug our staff,” she says. “We place them in separate rooms of maybe three or four or five, but they all want to get back together again.” 

Food and Hygiene

Hunger is a need that cuts across demographic groups. Mid-Ohio Foodbank president and CEO Matt Habash says the agency, which provides 70 million pounds of food to needy residents each year, saw a 20 percent increase in demand during the first week of Gov. DeWine’s stay-home order, and a 52 percent increase in visits to the food bank’s central pantry in Grove City. Habash pointed out that during a financial crisis, accessing free food can allow people to avoid falling into poverty or homelessness. “We know there’s a real stigma in trying to ask for help,” he says, “so we’re encouraging people, if you’ve lost your income source, whatever dollars you have, keep your mortgage or rent and pay those kind of things as opposed to spending dollars on food.”

On a recent Thursday, All People’s Fresh Market on Parsons Avenue, the food bank’s highest-volume food distribution site, was handing out personal hygiene supplies along with fresh produce. “You say, ‘Wash your hands more frequently and use disinfectants,’ but you cannot buy any of those items with food stamps or SNAP benefits,” says the Rev. John Edgar, executive director of Community Development for All People, which runs the free store. “For a whole lot of low-income people, this is a necessity that they cannot afford.” 

Jequita Miller, 40, of the West Side, was waiting in her car for food for herself and her 11-year-old daughter. An employee of Columbus City Schools, Miller had found stores in her neighborhood running out of staples she needed. 

“Yes, I’m worried,” she said. “I’m grateful that they are providing for us.”

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