Peter Garcelon was homeless when he first moved to Springfield.
“I've been in prison. And I spent 10 years in prison. And after I got out, I turned my life over to the Lord,” Garcelon said.
Now that he’s found housing, he tries to spread encouragement at the Veterans Coming Home Center, a drop-in place for the homeless in central Springfield. Garcelon says the pandemic has brought extra anxiety and despair to this fragile population.
“A lot of them are very, very depressed. I see a lot of people here that are hurting because they don't know who to turn to, who to ask for help from, you know? And that that's what really upsets me the most. I want them to know that they are loved,” Garcelon said.
And remember how scary it was for everyone in the beginning of the pandemic—when our doctors suddenly donned astronaut-looking outfits and we didn’t know hardly anything about the 2019 novel coronavirus other than the fact that it could kill people?
Well, that fear and confusion was magnified in the homeless population, according to Adam Bodendieck, who oversees homeless services at the Community Partnership of the Ozarks.
“When you have mental health conditions already, [the pandemic] certainly exacerbated it. So if you have a schizoaffective disorder or you are paranoid and all of a sudden this gets thrown into the mix, it becomes very overwhelming,” Bodendieck said.
Sprinkle in some misinformation and a lack of access to computers or libraries, and it’s an environment susceptible to very poor mental health.
Conspiracy theories abound
Chris Rice oversees operations at Veterans Coming Home in Springfield.
“When the pandemic first happened, I heard all the crazy conspiracy theories you can even imagine," Rice said.
"One person walked up to me once and was terrified that they were going to round up the homeless and cut their heads off, that this was some mass attempt to to eradicate all of the homeless in one go,” Rice said.
Rice says he can think of four individuals off the top of his head who have overdosed or died by suicide since the pandemic began. He believes it’s likely that the upheaval in routine and services has played a role.
“That’s because those we serve are experiencing depression, anxiety, stress and trauma, the likes of which many of us can't even imagine. And that's on a good day. And so when you add the uncertainty and the unknowing that comes with COVID-19, then it's just it's been so, so hard for them,” Rice said.
He said a lot of the anxiety is over the city’s cold weather shelter situation. As we’ve been reporting this week, the pandemic has led to fewer beds and fewer volunteers at those shelters.
Burrell Behavioral Health now has a team of staff members in the new O’Reilly Center for Hope, which is Springfield’s entry point for people seeking various kinds of help related to homelessness. And according to spokesman Matt Lemmon, Burrell offers no-cost homeless case management services through its grant-funded PATH program, as well as connection to outpatient mental health and substance-use treatment within the Burrell system. These services include help enrolling or re-enrolling for Medicaid, insurance, or other financial assistance, Lemmon said.
A street choir has to social distance
A little spark of joy Springfield’s homeless had latched onto last winter was the Springfield Street Choir. Katie Kring is the founder of the choir and an advocate for the homeless.
“Prior to the pandemic, we rehearsed once a week with 40 or 50 people, and it felt like a family in that we'd go out and perform and gave people a sense of dignity and joy and a place to be. And we gave them two bucks and it was great. Well, now we're meeting in a parking garage, which is cold and kind of drippy,” Kring said.
Kring says there’s one mental health impacts that often gets overlooked—and this year, it’s directly related to Springfield’s lack of emergency overnight shelter: sleep deprivation.
“Imagine going through days and weeks, not getting more than two or three hours of sleep,” Kring said.
A husband and wife avoid pandemic loneliness felt by their peers
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in 2020, it’s that sudden and prolonged isolation can hurt almost anyone. Whereas the homeless once congregated over free, cafeteria-style meals, those were largely scrapped as shelters and service organizations switched to meals-to-go to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
That’s why husband and wife Angela Smith and Brian Webb are grateful to have each other. They live in a tent in west Springfield on private property, where they say the landowner lets them camp out.
“People are all about their social distancing and everything else, and honestly, you can't get to know somebody if you don't reach out to them and it's made people afraid to reach out,” Smith said.
She says she once worked as an ambulance paramedic, but couldn’t get over the trauma she experienced responding to the Joplin tornado.
The homeless here, she said, are shackled with low self-esteem.
“You know, these people out here, they don't have a sense of accomplishment. They don't have because nobody's willing to take a chance on them. Well, you got to take a chance on them if you want these people to actually get out of the situation they're in,” Smith said.
She’s healed by finding joy and meaning in her friendship with her husband. I ask each of them to describe their partners’ best traits.
“Some of his best traits? He does the right thing just because it's the right thing to do, not not getting any reward from it, not getting anything like that, he does it just because it's the right thing to do. He's honest. He's strong,” Smith said.
“Acceptance, hands down. She accepts me for who I am no matter what. The acceptance and unconditional love. It's something that I've looked for my entire life that I didn't find until I've met her,” Webb said.
But many of Springfield’s unsheltered homeless residents are alone. And Angela Smith says the depression she sees on the streets is tied to low reserves of hope and opportunity—two things in extra short supply among the homeless as we go into winter during a worldwide pandemic.