The pandemic has made life tougher, said Moses Smith, 41, outside of Manna House on Thursday. “You don’t have no place to go,” he said. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Life has always been difficult for those living on the streets, but the combination of freezing temperatures and a still evolving but unannounced winter action plan by local authorities could make precarious circumstances deadly.

Moses Smith, 41, said the pandemic has made life tougher. “You don’t have no place to go,” Smith said recently while getting a haircut at Manna House Memphis, which provides free showers and clothing to homeless and poor people. Many indoor facilities— like libraries and restaurants — have limited how many people can gather at one time because of social distancing. “I usually stay out here (outside). I got a sleeping bag,” he said. 

Smith, who said he is a former architectural engineer, sleeps outside near Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Midtown, which he attends as a congregant. Shelters like Memphis Union Mission and Calvary Rescue Mission require a negative COVID-19 test for admittance, and the latter reduced capacity by half to 50 beds, said officials with both shelters. 

Ray Spencer, 40, stands for a portrait at Manna House on Thursday. Manna House provides free showers and clothing to those in need. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

But the city’s usual strategy for warming centers, the first of which opened Monday, is lagging behind the weather. The announcement of a pop-up center at the Hollywood Community Center in North Memphis was a rapid response to below-freezing temperatures, said Dorcas Young-Griffin, director of the county’s division of community services, who is involved in the planning through her role on the COVID-19 Joint Task Force. She said there has been a rush this month to set-up COVID-19 testing and safety protocols for warming centers. 

“This is really new work for me,” Young-Griffin said. “It would be nice, outside of COVID, that we’ll keep this level of collaboration. I really would like to see us work like this when it’s not this chaotic. There’s so much chaos, you’re just trying to respond.” 

The city has identified four to five locations for warming centers this winter, including the one in North Memphis, according to Greg Waymon, who is leading planning for the city’s Office of Emergency Management. For the first time, the office is coordinating with Shelby County to provide health and housing services on-site. 

More than 1,000 people in Memphis are experiencing homelessness, though a count by the Community Alliance for the Homeless has not been completed since January of this year. Interviews with city, county and shelter officials show an emergency response rapidly evolving, though limited by time and resources. 

“It’s very much in early stages,” Waymon, who started in this position on Nov. 23, said Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve always made it happen, we’re just trying to [have] more in-depth conversations, formalize the process a little better.”

Ideally, planning accommodations for the winter would begin earlier, said Lisa Anderson, director of  Room at the Inn, an organization that places people in churches for shelter. “It obviously should be sooner than December to talk about, but I do think the pandemic has made it more complicated,” Anderson said. “This year things are taking more time.” 

Temperatures in Memphis are expected to fall to near-freezing this week. Combined with wind chill and precipitation, people exposed to the elements could get frostbite or freeze to death, said Janice Taylor, the program director for Operation Outreach, an initiative by Christ Community Health Services and Baptist Memorial Healthcare to provide health services to people at shelters. 

Smith set his winter hat down at Manna House on Thursday, December 3, 2020. Andrea Morales for MLK50

Waymon declined to share additional locations identified by the city for warming centers, citing the need to not put out information that may change. These are city facilities with multiple rooms with dedicated air circulation systems and restrooms, to allow for separation of people showing symptoms of COVID-19. Temperature checks and masks are required. Young-Griffin said that there are plans to provide rapid-response testing on-site, but, unlike some city shelters, a negative COVID-19 test result will not be required for admittance.

The city of Dallas, in comparison, began planning a warming center strategy in November, using 35 recreational centers operating at quarter capacity during business hours, according to a spokeswoman for its emergency operations center. She said people needing to stay warm overnight are directed to shelters and churches. 

The opening of the facility at Hollywood Community Center was not without bumps, as public notification came mere hours in advance and, at first, a phone number to arrange transport to the center led to a voicemail inbox that had not been setup. Five people utilized transportation provided by the Memphis Area Transit Authority between the center’s hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., said a spokesperson with the agency. 

“We should (give) a little earlier public notification,” Waymon said. “Sometimes we don’t know. The practice is you watch it, you check it again the morning of, if the forecast indicates we’re going to hit a trigger point, then we’re going to open up. We just try to get it out as early as possible.” 

Warming centers are opened when a combination of factors are met, Waymon said: At least a 24-degree wind chill, a 28-degree temperature or a freezing temperature and precipitation. This has changed in recent years and has not been consistent.

“This is something we’ve been working on the last few weeks,” he said. “We will work to provide for needs as best we can,” he added later via text message.

Smith, finishing up his hair cut at Manna House, knows the impact of the virus. 

“A cousin passed away [from COVID-19] two months ago,” he said. “People are dying.”

Shiraz Ahmed is editorial operations manager for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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