We begin our series, Unsheltered, at a church—the East Sunshine Church of Christ in Springfield—on a recent Monday evening just as a city bus is pulling up.
Out file about two dozen men, most carrying backpacks or blankets or a rolling a suitcase. A second bus will follow a few minutes later.
It’s half past seven o’clock and the temperature is quickly dropping to its projected low of 22 degrees. And just like that, this church is transforming into an emergency cold weather shelter for the homeless.
Springfield has two – this one for men and another for women at a different church – but they only open on nights when the temperature will dip below freezing. So, if the low is expected to be 33 degrees, they’re on their own—mostly on the streets.
Last year, this shelter accommodated 100 men on sub-freezing nights. And generally speaking, it was first-come, first served. But the pandemic has changed all that.
Reducing capacity by half to allow for social distancing
To prevent an outbreak, the shelter reduced its capacity by half, and those men have all been pre-approved on a list.
“We are not feeding this year so that they do not gather together," said Karen Mizell, pastor of East Sunshine Church of Christ.
“We do provide coffee that they can take back to their cots or go outside when they're smoking. No food is otherwise is allowed because we don't want them collecting and gathering," Mizell said.
The hot coffee flows, and the men are quiet as they head for their cots in the church’s fellowship hall.
They’ve had their temperatures taken and they check in with volunteers sitting behind a plastic screen to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
On this night, it doesn’t reach even the reduced capacity; only 37 men showed up for the bus ride.
But there are 50 men on the list – and many more on the waiting list, according to Community Partnership of the Ozarks, which manages that list. Mizell said that's typical for early in the winter; she expects the shelter will be full soon.
Wrestling with survivor's guilt due to limited capacity
One man who says he’s on the list, but who isn’t at the shelter on this particular night, is Eric Gipson. I interviewed him a few days earlier on the street. This tall, lithe man with shoulder-length brown and gray hair had spent the previous night "sleeping out," he said.
"I don't think it's right to put a limit on the amount of people that can go and get warm. I mean, that's sad because there's a lot more than 50 of us as a family out here, you know," Gipbson said.
On nights when the emergency shelter is open, Gibson said he sometimes gives up his spot for someone else because the survivor’s guilt of staying in a warm shelter when his friends are out in the elements is even worse than the cold.
Growing up in the tiny town of Butler, Missouri, he says he had a bright future as a track and field standout—he was a natural pole vaulter, he says, and also ran the low and high-hurdles and sprinted like a deer. But that opportunity, and the hope and joy that came with it, all vanished when his father’s abuse became so intense that Gibson was made a ward of the state.
He says he was moved from place to place so frequently in the foster care system that it made it impossible for him to join a track team or thrive in school. Many years later, he finally found a tight-knit family here—his so-called “street family”—the people he’s giving up his spot in the shelter for.
"And it would be it'd be really nice if the men had a place to go, you know, rather than, you know...I mean, you got the Victory Mission, but they're always full and, you know, I mean, the stipulations," Gipson said.
Victory Mission, a faith-based nonprofit in Springfield, has a robust program for the homeless—but only about 50 beds a night for men who aren’t part of a longer-term program or a low-fee, paying shelter. And men are required to have a valid ID and meet other criminal background requirements, two barriers for many people living on the streets. As Gipson said, Victory Mission’s shelter – and other shelters throughout the city—are often running at full capacity.
Preventing a catastrohe: more COVID precautions, fewer volunteers
In Springfield, there’s an alliance that’s designated by the city of Springfield – and the federal government – with addressing homelessness in Greene, Christian and Webster Counties. It’s called the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness and it administers over $1 million in federal HUD funding to local agencies each year. Its executive board meetings and sub-committee meetings are all open to the public.
The Community Partnership of the Ozarks, or CPO, facilitates that alliance.
Adam Bodendieck with CPO says the pandemic has made the cold weather shelter situation worse.
"And because of the health concerns present with COVID, if we were to have COVID positive individuals get into the shelter and if it were to spread, that would be absolutely catastrophic. It would it would shut everything down," Bodendieck said.
In addition to that, he says, Springfield's shelters rely heavily on volunteers--but the city has seen its volunteer pool slashed dramatically this year.
"Because a lot of the overnight shelter volunteers are typically, they're older, and they are a population that is more vulnerable to covid-19," Bodendieck said.
When the pandemic first hit, CPO scrambled to get homeless people who were at high risk for COVID-19 complications into hotel housing, which is ongoing.
But it’s estimated that there are more than 100 people still on the Springfield streets as we head into winter—even when the cold weather shelters are open.
"We need to find a solution that is both safe and humane. Picking one is not an option," said Katie Kring, a homeless advocate and founder of the Springfield Street Choir.
"I think that we have we have traded one bad thing for another," she said. She said she understands social distancing and other COVID precautions, but not to the point "where people die of exposure."
Battling frostbite and a pandemic simultaneously
Another homeless resident, Steven Negroni, was staying in Victory Mission’s paid shelter rooms when we talked two weeks ago, but said he didn’t have money or vouchers to last beyond three more nights.
He told me about a recent night spent under a Springfield bridge.
"I started shaking, got real cold. My sleeping bag started freezing up to my face in the material, this 'parachute' [material]. And it doesn't take much for it to, what do they call it, stick to your skin real fast," Negroni said.
The next morning when he tried to shave, he said the skin on his face was prickly, raw and hurting like something we can’t quote on the radio.
He says he received treatement for that at a local hospital and that his diagnosis was frostbite of the face.