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WKAR News

Advocates For People Experiencing Homelessness Juggle Cold Weather And COVID Concerns

Emergency Shelter at Gier Community Center
City Rescue Mission of Lansing
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At the begining of the pandemic, a group of advocacy groups for people experiencing homelessness set up an emergency shelter at the Gier Community Center.

As temperatures get colder, it becomes more critical for people experiencing homelessness to find warm and safe shelter.

Sarah Lehr of the Lansing State Journal reported last week, the city of Lansing plans to clear an encampment located on the corner of North Larch Street and East Saginaw Highway.

A spokesperson for the city has said there are health concerns including trash and unsupervised fires on the property. But there are still questions about where the people living there will go, especially with concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

WKAR’s Sophia Saliby spoke with the executive director of Advent House Ministries, Susan Cancro. The organization provides outreach and support to people experiencing homelessness in the Capital Region.

Interview Highlights

On What The Situation On The Ground Looks Like At The "Back 40"

People have set up tents and some structures trying to, you know, stay safe in the cold and to create a place where they can sleep and eat and function on a daily level. This is all very close to where there are shelters available as well. But for some, staying in a congregate shelter, it doesn't feel safe to them. Not that those shelters are unsafe, but because that person feels that's not personally, say, for them. And that we respect. People struggle with homelessness in so many ways, and it's not an easy challenge for anyone.

On Balancing Concerns About Cold Weather And COVID-19

You have to look at the threat. You have the threat of exposure and infection with a terrible disease, but you also have the threat of injury, and because of unsafe living conditions for people who are living outside. And of course, in Michigan where it gets really cold, you have the problem of exposure. And people can also become very ill and die when they're exposed to low temperatures. So, we've got to take all of that into consideration. You know, you have to balance these dangers against one another. And then you have to make the best judgment possible in directing people, so that you can avoid dangers in the most logical way. We don't want to lose anybody here. Not to COVID, not to the cold, and not to any bodily injury because of the dangerous environment.

On Plans For A Winter Shelter

We have a place identified and we are working together. We have a plan. Advent House, Holy Cross Services, the City Rescue Mission and Homeless Angels are all working together in cooperation with the city and the county health department to create a place where people can come be out of the elements and be as safe as possible using the practices we've had thus far.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I'm Sophia Saliby.

As temperatures get colder, it becomes more critical for people experiencing homelessness to find warm and safe shelter.

Sarah Lehr of the Lansing State Journal reported last week, the city of Lansing plans to clear an encampment located on the corner of North Larch Street and East Saginaw Highway.

A spokesperson for the city has said there are health concerns including trash and unsupervised fires on the property. But there are still questions about where the people living there will go, especially with concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

Susan Cancro is the executive director of Advent House Ministries. The organization provides outreach and support to people experiencing homelessness in the Capital Region. She joins me now. Thank you for being here.

Susan Cancro: It's wonderful to be here. Thank you, Sophia. I appreciate that.

Saliby: You told me there's about 50 people living at this encampment known as the "Back 40" Can you tell me about what the situation looks like on the ground?

Cancro: From what we have seen, people have set up tents and some structures trying to, you know, stay safe in the cold and to create a place where they can sleep and eat and function on a daily level. This is all very close to where there are shelters available as well.

But for some, staying in a congregate shelter, it doesn't feel safe to them. Not that those shelters are unsafe, but because that person feels that's not personally, say, for them. And that we respect. People struggle with homelessness in so many ways, and it's not an easy challenge for anyone.

Saliby: And just briefly how does your organization help get these people into housing or get them any other assistance they may need?

Cancro: We have a program called the PATH Street Outreach Program, and that is set up to get people from the street to some kind of stability. And that will differ from one person to the next. It's not a formula, every human being is different. So, we try to go out and really take into consideration each person's individual needs, but always with the idea of safety.

So, the first step would be to get somebody outside to shelter if they're comfortable. If not, we have had people that we've worked with, we've had this program for two years, and people we've worked with have gotten from the street into permanent housing.

So that's great, you know, if that works, and we can make that happen, we'll do whatever we can. The idea is housing first, you want to get that person to housing. Shelter is not the first option, but it may be the first safest option, for someone who's living on the street.

Saliby: Over the summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out guidelines recommending not breaking up encampments like this, when individual housing is not available, because COVID-19 could spread in shelters. And I should say we reached out to the city for an interview about this, and they have not yet responded.

People have been living there for months, so what's changed to where they need to leave now?

Cancro: The Centers for Disease Control obviously is doing the best they can as a governmental entity to help us as communities nationwide to stop the spread of COVID. When COVID hit back in March, the shelters, here in Lansing, did an amazing job working to separate the most vulnerable from the rest of the population who are homeless and in shelters, so that they would not perchance become infected. What we see now though, is now that more people have been exposed, what we're doing is trying to keep people as safe as possible within the reality of where we are at the moment.

So, what happens at that point is you have to look at the threat. You have the threat of exposure and infection with a terrible disease, but you also have the threat of injury, and because of unsafe living conditions for people who are living outside. And of course, in Michigan where it gets really cold, you have the problem of exposure. And people can also become very ill and die when they're exposed to low temperatures. So, we've got to take all of that into consideration.

You know, you have to balance these dangers against one another. And then you have to make the best judgment possible in directing people, so that you can avoid dangers in the most logical way. We don't want to lose anybody here. Not to COVID, not to the cold, and not to any bodily injury because of the dangerous environment. 

Saliby: So, are you worried at all that city plans to clear this encampment could leave people more vulnerable? Or do you think there's greater issues that kind of outweigh that?

Cancro: That one particular encampment has become in some ways more dangerous because of the amount of debris and the use of fire. I think that if that were cleared, in particular, people would, could be relocated to other places, including shelter, and including housing, for those that might be able to find that. And it's not easy to find. And also, possibly a different encampment, that's not as dangerous. So, there are ways we can work this. It is something we really try to work with each person and do what makes sense for each one. 

Saliby: What makes congregate settings like shelters dangerous at this time?

Cancro: Well, just like any congregate setting, you have human beings who are close to each other for extended time periods, even with, you know, social distancing and masks, people are still talking and they're still, you know, together. And if somebody's sick, another person can get sick.

Now, by the grace of God, we have not had anyone, even in those settings, who became sick, in fact, the entire shelter. Now that could certainly happen, but so far, we have avoided that, even when we did have a couple of people sick in the shelter system. They were taken into a quarantine setting, as were anyone who [was] exposed to them closely, and we have not had after everyone was tested any more positives.

Saliby: Can you speak to any plans in the works to provide a place for people in these winter months so they can stay healthy and safe?

Cancro: We, and this is the, I am the chair of the Capital Region Housing Collaborative, which is the continuum of care for shelters. And we, together, have talked about this for several months. Planning ahead for what we know will be the cold winter, probably eight to 12 weeks. And we have a place identified and we are working together.

We have a plan. Advent House, Holy Cross Services, the City Rescue Mission and Homeless Angels are all working together in cooperation with the city and the county health department to create a place where people can come be out of the elements and be as safe as possible using the practices we've had thus far.

Saliby: Susan Cancro is the executive director of Advent House Ministries. Thank you for joining me.

Cancro: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

Saliby: This is WKAR. I'm Sophia Saliby. You can always find more of the latest local news online at our website at wkar.org. You can also follow us on social media with our handle at @WKARNews.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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