Demands on neighborhood centers, homeless shelters grow as COVID-19 spreads

The food pantry at the MLK Center.

From Newport to Stonington, Ct. and beyond, the non-profit agencies that feed and house some of the areas most challenged individuals and families are being deluged with new clients and requests from people “devastated” by the impact of COVID-19.

In the past two weeks Newport’s Martin Luther King Center has “served more people (1,200) than in a three-month period of time,” said Heather Hole Strout, the MLK Center’s executive director. “We do think the need is going to grow and continue at a much larger capacity than ever before for months and months to come.”

New clients come from jobs that have vanished with the onset of COVID-19. “A lot of people are coming from the service industry who have lost their jobs suddenly,” Strout said.

And the plight of the homeless has gotten particularly worse, as those in temporary shelters remain put, with few affordable housing options available, according to Kelly Lee, executive director of Lucy’s Hearth in Middletown, a 15-unit family facility that houses 53 people.

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Russ Partridge, executive director of Westerly’s Warm Center, said all shelters in Rhode Island are full.

COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly throughout the United States, which now has more cases than China. In Rhode Island numbers are now approaching 200 and may exceed that by the time this article is posted, growing at a pace of more than 20 percent per day. 

“There are a lot of really really anxious people who don’t understand how they are going to get through this,” Strout said. 

Stress is highest among the new people, those who have never had to approach a food pantry, or thought they would, said Susan Sedensky, executive director of the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center in Stonington.

Each day the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless hosts a conference call with the agencies throughout the state, coordinating many of the activities. For many of the homeless their support network is growing smaller and smaller.

“I see this population as challenged,” Strout said. “Even restroom facilities are hard for them to find, and some meal sites – in churches and organizations – have closed down.”

The MLK Center continues to operate its morning breakfast program, but instead of a sit-down meal, they are passing out breakfast bags outside the building.

Lee said there are several hygiene centers around the state, but none on Aquidneck Island or in Washington County, according to the Homeless Coalition’s website. There are three listed in Pawtucket, two in West Warwick, and 32 in Providence.

Sedensky said communication is difficult with the homeless, now that in-person contact is limited. Few homeless have telephones, she said. 

Some safeguards are being put in place for those who are financially challenged, living in their own homes or apartments.

“We are hearing stories of people with housing issues,” Strout said. “I do know things are being put quickly in place to keep people from being evicted” and there’s a no shutoff order for utilities.

“But at some point,” Strout said, “that will stop” and those who have put off paying rents, mortgages and utilities could find themselves with a considerable sum to owe.

For now, the agencies will be focused on immediate needs, food and shelter.

“I want people to know we’re here and will be here as long as we can,” Strout said. She urged people to check on their neighbors, and if there are people unable to come to the MLK Center who are eligible to receive food assistance, including those in quarantine she said they can call the following emergency numbers: 

  • Newport, 401-845-5501
  • Middletown, 401-842-6556
  • Portsmouth, 401-643-0378.

All the centers also agreed that they will not accept food donations, but instead are looking for financial assistance.

“Right now we’re asking people who have food donations to hold onto them,” Strout said. “We’re looking for monetary donations, and we’re ordering from local vendors. The least amount of hands on items the better.”

Meanwhile, Strout and the other directors were gratified with the level of community support.

“It’s amazing to me and heartwarming how times like this people in the community come together,” Lee said.

And it’s that support that will be so necessary as this virus continues to grow and spread. As Lee said, “it’s not going away,” anytime soon. 

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Frank Prosnitz brings to WhatsUpNewp several years in journalism, including 10 as editor of the Providence (RI) Business News and 14 years as a reporter and bureau manager at the Providence (RI) Journal. Prosnitz began his journalism career as a sportswriter at the Asbury Park (NJ) Press, moving to The News Tribune (Woodbridge, NJ), before joining the Providence Journal. Prosnitz hosts the Morning Show on WLBQ radio (Westerly), 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday, and It’s Your Business, also on WBLQ, Monday and Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Prosnitz has twice won Best in Business Awards from the national Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW), twice was named Media Advocate of the Year by the Small Business Administration, won an investigative reporter’s award from the New England Press Association, and newswriting award from the Rhode Island Press Association.