Chattanooga service groups must balance safety with caring for the homeless as coronavirus worries grow

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Kenneth Neville, left, talks with Mike Pettross, a photo technician with the crime scene investigations department, at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen on Jan 29, 2019.

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As concerns about the novel coronavirus shut down schools and sporting events across the nation, Chattanooga's social services are preparing to keep open the support systems residents need to survive.

About two weeks ago, the Chattanooga Community Kitchen began using a timer for all food line volunteers to wash their hands every 30 minutes. The organization has held town hall-like events to keep its clients updated on the health risks and preventive measures, said Jens Christensen, chief executive officer.

There are hand sanitizing stations set up throughout the building,and the organization installed a new sink in the hallway for people to wash their hands while waiting for food, Christensen said. In the event of a local outbreak, the kitchen plans to keep core programs open, including food and shelter services, he said.

On Thursday, Gov. Bill Lee declared a state of emergency hours before the Tennessee Department of Health announced the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 doubled since Wednesday, bringing the total to 18 in the state. Hamilton County Schools will close starting next week until March 30, joining the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Lee University in closing.

READ MORE: Hamilton County Schools to close until March 30 in wake of coronavirus concerns

COVID-19 poses a significant risk to the homeless population, Christensen said. In order to receive services, such as health care or food, people have to be in close proximity. Many have underlying health conditions that put them at heightened risk. If they are infected, they do not have a place to self-quarantine.

From the latest numbers, there are 623 people experiencing homelessness in Chattanooga, according to the 2018 Point in Time count. Included in that total are 75 children under age 18.

If necessary during an outbreak, the Community Kitchen's shelter could be used to quarantine people, Christensen said.

"The theory is it will hit the homeless population late, but the theory is that it will hit the homeless population hard," he said.

The Salvation Army also has available space for quarantining if the need arises, said Maj. Mark Smith. For now, the service group is following a prevention plan based on guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Salvation Army will look to local and state health departments for advice, he said.

"We will do everything we can to protect the people that we are coming into contact with. If that means we have to isolate or quarantine, we will do that," Smith said. "I hope it doesn't come to that."

Similarly, Metropolitan Ministries has followed the CDC prevention guidelines - maintaining a three-foot distance from others and not shaking hands.

The Chattanooga Area Food Bank is monitoring the situation and keeping lines of communication open with its 200 local partners, which help distribute food in the community, said Sophie Moore, director of community outreach.

READ MORE: Tennessee governor declares emergency over coronavirus

Like other local social services organizations, the food bank is balancing the line of keeping services open for those who need them and keeping vulnerable populations safe. The food bank distributed the equivalent of 13 million meals in the last fiscal year, Moore said.

"We are eyes wide open to all the developments and how we need to respond to the best interest to our safety, to our clients' safety but also to the interest that people get access to needed food," she said.

Kendra Phillips, director of the Care Mission food pantry in LaFayette, Georgia, said the pantry will continue operating as normal until further notice. The group serves anywhere from 120 to 150 families a week, she said.

"We've got hand sanitizer on deck and we're making sure to wipe everything down," Phillips said. "We're just being extra cautious right now. It's in God's hands."

(Read more coronavirus coverage here)

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