Magazine Features

Unparalleled Times

The U.S. is facing a national homelessness crisis and COVID–19 has delivered its devastating blow. Undaunted, The Salvation Army continues to help people in need, without discrimination.

When homelessness looms, hope is sometimes all that remains. Even before COVID–19 hit, the United States faced a massive homeless and housing crisis. Due to lapses in rent and mortgage payments caused by the pandemic, nearly 40 million more families are at risk of losing their most precious possession. A nationwide moratorium, imposed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), was extended to March 31. A $1.9 trillion stimulus package now in process by Congress and the House of Representatives is, among other pressing needs, designed to prevent these families from being forced into substandard dwellings or even the streets.

“Congress has been working on a bill since last summer,” says Linda Wright, divisional social services director for the Empire State Division. “This is such a big issue and involves so much more than just the lowest income people.” Wright and others say that the urban, suburban, rural, and even affluent communities across the USA Eastern Territory and the nation are all at risk.

Brenda Downing, director of social services at the Army’s office in Middletown, Conn., in the Southern New England Division, agrees. “Disasters do not discriminate,” she says. “They affect all races, nationalities, and lifestyles and by no fault of their own.”

The consequences of COVID–19 have been devastating. People have lost jobs, homes, and loved ones. Many have also lost the ability to pay their rent, mortgage, and utility bills and are desperate for help.

Although the moratorium has been helpful in postponing the inevitable, the bills will eventually come due—retroactively. Karen Cotugno, social services director in the Greater New York Division, says everyone is asking important questions that must be resolved. “In January, will people be able to pay all of that rent that goes back to March? And then, what about the landlords? I don’t know if anyone has figured those pieces out yet,” she says.

Wright says those pieces need to come together before the bottom falls away. “The moratorium did not prevent evictions, it just delayed them. The delay was helpful, but it does set up a looming cliff in our work of supporting the lowest income people to keep them housed.”

Even in the midst of the moratorium, judges and court officers are still processing and serving papers on families. They’re using large convention centers and sports facilities as courtrooms in order to expedite this process en masse. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, CNN reported that some tenants who failed to complete the forms accurately are in danger of being eliminated from even consideration in the moratorium.

“There is a larger percentage of homeless people in rural areas than in urban areas.”

— Linda Wright

an invisible enemy

Downing, who has worked for The Salvation Army 25 years, and who started disaster recovery work in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy, says this disaster is different from any she’s seen. “It’s different because it impacts other social services. Other disasters did not impede our ability to run other programs. Because the pandemic is an unknown and we cannot see it and we have to proceed so cautiously, it has impacted every facet of our social services ministry and how we deliver services. While we’re trying to deal with recovery, we’re also trying to continue our day–to–day social service ministries.

“Everyone is affected, regardless of their station in life,” says Downing, who points out that middle class and affluent communities are also suffering great financial loss. “We’ve got some neighborhoods, such as in Greenwich and Fairfield, that make far more than the median income. But they don’t have the income they used to have to maintain the lifestyle they’ve been living, so they need help too.”

The situation reminds her of shoreline residents whose homes were washed away during Hurricane Sandy. “We’re seeing some very great need in areas where we wouldn’t normally see it.”

Another twist has to do with big city vs. small town resources. In urban areas, many participating agencies are able to weave a tighter collaborative network of services than can be typically sewn in suburban and rural towns.

“There is a larger percentage of homeless people in rural areas than in urban areas,” says Wright. “This is because resources are fewer. Strong emergency housing networks are needed to provide an effective safety net for people who fall into poverty and homelessness.

“Rural communities have no such network of providers. For example, hundreds of shelter beds are available in urban environments, but perhaps fewer than 100 are available in the rural communities. Sometimes, people are actually bussed from rural to urban communities to get help,” Wright says.

Downing adds that, since the pandemic, the CDC’s social distancing requirements in Connecticut have further reduced the number of beds allowed in shelters.

“This is why our Salvation Army in our smaller communities is so important, Especially during COVID–19,” says Wright.  “We may be the only food pantry or emergency soup kitchen left standing for ‘take–and–go’ meals.”


many points of view

Erin Sparks, social services project manager in the Greater New York Division, says such a wide range of perspectives make collaboration a formidable challenge. “This pandemic has opened the curtain on the disjointedness regarding city, government, and non–profit priorities. We all know that we are living in a very interesting political climate. We’ve now seen how that can impact all of us; our health, wellness, and the families we serve.

“City, country, and town officials are beginning to recognize the need for understanding each other’s points of view. So, I’m hopeful that in the coming days more people will come up with innovative ideas. Creating resources that connect landlords, tenants, and non–profits that serve these tenants are key,” Sparks says.

Wright concurs. “Our goal is figuring out how we connect all the dots—all the partners who are at this table.”

People among the homeless population are 2 to 3 times more likely to die during the COVID–19 pandemic.

Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness


The people at greatest risk

Despite what appears to be an overwhelming situation, Salvation Army social services personnel are rolling up their sleeves and getting to work like never before. The goal is to keep families housed, fed, and comforted during these unparalleled times and return them to their pre–COVID status.

“People want to know what the need is, but they won’t understand that until they start doing the work,” says Downing. “We are trying to educate people to ‘pay what you can’— show that you’ve made an effort to comply.”

Doing so allows The Salvation Army to serve needy families. “The Army has a reputation among utility companies and landlords as being a credible advocate in negotiations,” says Downing. “We’ll support rather than duplicate the work that has already been done by local, state, and federal agencies.

“We align our assistance to meet the needs of everybody. We help folks when they don’t qualify for programs that are set up for the median group. Those folks can be poor or affluent or undocumented. We want to maximize existing resources and help make people whole; to get them back to their pre–disaster status,” says Downing.

“The people at greatest risk are those who today believe they are safe under the moratorium and choose not to pay, even though they are not adversely affected by COVID–19,” warns Downing. “If their income has remained the same, but they chose not to pay during the moratorium, their request for assistance from The Salvation Army may be in jeopardy.” In every situation, how the Army can assist best will include a comprehensive understanding of how the individual or family was impacted by COVID–19.

Pulling out all the stops

Downing warns that the gap between what people owe and what they can actually pay remains bigger than the Grand Canyon.

Sparks says that to help fill the gap, The Salvation Army needs to make use of every available funding option. “At this point, we need to get these programs up and running and doing all we can to be entirely prepared to hit the ground running whenever those eviction moratoria are over.

“If we can get the tenants to pay what they need to pay as soon as possible, that sets the landlords in the right direction. So, it’s just about working through these blockades that are preventing that from happening.

“All we can do is continue to look for more funding opportunities and to set up an infrastructure. We need to encourage counties and towns to look for ‘out–of–the–box’ solutions. The counties are talking to each other now and watching how each other are doing things. That has been helpful.”

Cotugno says, “We’ve also been fortunate to have received a lot of funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Development and philanthropists, but there are still a lot of unknowns.”


A matter of faith

Nonetheless, Salvation Army frontline workers remain optimistic about the future. “I’m hopeful because I am a person of faith,” says Wright. “I believe people can be called and committed to doing what is right. The social worker in me says, ‘We must understand the struggle of generational poverty and the people whom we serve.’”

Downing offers a similar response. “I am hopeful about the future. God has been good; we have a great team. We often say we are an agency built on faith, but sometimes we have to take that leap of faith.”

by Warren L. Maye