Programs for hungry and vulnerable people in Arizona are not immune to social upheaval related to the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.
And staffers and volunteers who support Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest and their iHelp homeless shelter program have adapted to continue their efforts despite the challenges.
County officials, iHelp program coordinators and other stakeholders discussed those challenges during a recent hour-long webinar hosted by LSS-SW.
Connie Phillips, president and CEO of LSS, described the scope and importance of their programs — especially those serving the homeless and those at risk of homelessness across the Valley.
“Today, our Emergency Services division is made up of our two food pantries, which are located in Mesa, rent and utility assistance, and iHelp, the interfaith homeless emergency lodging program,” Ms. Phillips said during the Aug. 25 discussion conducted via Zoom. “Although Emergency Services is not our largest division in the LSS system of caring, it is the one that is most dependent on volunteers and community partners and it serves the largest number of people.”
She said her organization served nearly 29,000 people during 2019, mostly through their food banks. Their homelessness efforts touched 289 people last year as well.
“That is a significant number,” Ms. Phillips said. “Homelessness is a growing issue in Maricopa County, and my fear is that we will see it further exacerbated by the impact of the virus.”
She said their interfaith programs have seen an influx of returning clients, who have lost their jobs and fallen behind on rent since the outbreak.
As LSS-SW is contracted to distribute emergency rental assistance funding through the city of Phoenix, they now get hundreds of calls each week from people desperate for help, Ms. Phillips said.
Scope of homelessness problem
Scott Hall, homeless projects program manager with the Maricopa County Human Services Department, said the region’s homelessness problem has worsened during the past five years.
“Homelessness has been on the increase here in Maricopa County and across the nation for some time now,” Mr. Hall said.
Citing data from the county’s annual point-in-time count, he said the county has seen an increase of nearly 295% in the number of unsheltered homeless individuals — from 1,289 counted in 2015, to 3,767 identified in this year’s count.
The number of sheltered homeless people — those identified as homeless but who have access to shelter services or temporary help from friends or family — declined from 4,342 in 2015 to 3,652 individuals as of this year.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and coordinated locally by the Maricopa Association of Governments, this year’s PIT count was conducted on Jan. 28 with the help of local law enforcement, human services agencies and volunteers across the Valley.
Mr. Hall suggested, despite their efforts, many more homeless people remain uncounted.
“Remember, this is just a point-in-time count,” he said. “We all go out throughout Maricopa County on one morning, try to count the best we can sheltered and unsheltered people facing homelessness. We know these number are under-representative. But even with that, we’re steadily seeing the increase.”
The outbreak has taken a toll on homeless relief efforts — especially because social distancing requirements have reduced an already inadequate capacity to serve those in need, he said.
“Now we have COVID on top of that and it’s done this to our system,” Mr. Hall stated. “It’s made us reduce our capacity for our shelter system to reduce the congregate setting to allow space for social distancing. It’s great to give them that space, but now we’re reducing the number of beds we have to serve the people in our communities.”
The county’s largest shelter facility in Phoenix, which once served up to 475, has been reduced to 390 individuals daily.
He praised the iHelp shelter services model, which creates pop-up services to serve vulnerable people closer to home rather than at a centralized, dedicated facility.
“It gives us that regional response to shelter services,” Mr. Hall said. “It takes it out to where it’s needed in the community. So, we’re not asking to ship people in to where they’re uncomfortable … and we’re able to serve them in the communities where they’re currently at.”
What is iHelp?
The iHelp shelters have helped meet growing needs more quickly because the program relies on donated space in existing church facilities with the help of volunteers, who deliver services and care, Mr. Hall said.
“I can’t emphasize enough: We need more shelter capacity in the community,” he said. “iHelp is one of those models that truly brings shelter where it’s needed and not having to build another bricks-mortar building in someone’s community. iHelp is that living, breathing system that has worked wonderfully.”
Robert Sanders, director of emergency services at LSS-SW, explained how the iHelp shelters operate.
“It’s a partnership between Lutheran Social Services, local churches and volunteers, and city and county government,” Mr. Sanders explained. “Churches provide the shelter, the government provides the approval and funding, and Lutheran Social Services provides the coordination and case management services.”
The program’s purpose is not just to provide temporary shelter and relief from the heat but to help those in need to find permanent jobs and long-term solutions to their problems.
“Case managers work together with iHelp guests to end their homelessness, find employment and shelter, apply for benefits, training and treatment for addiction to help people stay on their feet after gaining housing,” he said. “It is a low-cost, low-barrier shelter that anyone can join.”
While the iHelp model has been implemented by various Arizona advocacy groups, LSS-SW first established its iHelp program in Mesa in 2010. They set up similar programs in Avondale in 2017 and then in Surprise in October of last year.
Churches in Mesa, Gilbert, Avondale, Litchfield Park, Goodyear, Surprise, El Mirage and Sun City have partnered to implement and support the program, Mr. Sanders said.
Prior to the outbreak, the three LSS-SW iHelp locations had capacity to serve up to 49 individuals each night, providing a meal and case management for each participant with the help of more than 200 volunteers.
New coronavirus challenges
Charlene Newman, case manager supervisor for the LSS-SW shelter in Mesa, said despite the pandemic’s disruption, church communities have risen to the occasion and helped the program continue unabated.
“When COVID-19 began affecting Arizona, the iHelp program began receiving notifications from the host churches saying that they were suspending their programs hosted at their churches, which included suspending the iHelp programs,” she said. “But, miraculously, all three divisions — in Mesa, Avondale and Surprise — had churches step up and donate space so we could shelter the participants in place so they wouldn’t be out on the streets all day without any protections and making them more susceptible to contracting the virus.”
She said many case managers now working from home because of viral concerns are still able to meet remotely with the iHelp guests via online and smartphone applications.
After the outbreak, many area social services agencies and nonprofits were overwhelmed and became essentially unavailable, ostensibly because of a deluge of new requests from people who’d not previously needed assistance, she said.
LSS-SW’s approach to the program has shifted to remote services, but this has created new challenges.
Program participants, some of advanced age, have difficulty using online platforms and need assistance to set up and learn to use such applications. This has disrupted job placement, housing and training services, which previously were offered on an in-person basis.
Rates of referrals for mental health services have risen, as participants increasingly report feeling isolated and hopeless because of the pandemic’s emotional toll.
New participants now must complete a medical clearance through a partnering organizations before being admitted an iHelp shelter. And all are now required to be screened for COVID-19 symptoms daily and wear face masks and gloves while in public.
But thanks to the additional facility capacity provided by partnering churches and the diligence of participants and volunteers to adhere to protocols, the programs have continued without incident, Ms. Newman explained.
“Thanks to the churches that were able to donate space, we were able to do social distancing in the program and everyone was able to have their own spot,” she said. “It’s been hard sheltering the participants in place. But as hard as it’s been, there has been a bright spot … because not one participant, not one manager, not one monitor has contracted the virus.”
No participants or volunteers have shown symptoms or tested positive for COVID-19, Ms. Newman said.
How to help
Jenny Tatum, volunteer engagement director at LSS-SW, explained how the program relies on volunteers and donors to continue its community mission.
“Volunteers are the key to work that we do and the success and even the ability to have these programs,” Ms. Tatum said. “It’s because of community members who care about this program and emergency services.”
Volunteers fill many roles, including answering phones, distributing food boxes, washing laundry, cooking, driving, cleaning and planning, among other efforts. More importantly, iHelp program volunteers provide the human element to serve those in need, she said.
“Volunteering is not just about washing the laundry or cooking the meals,” she said. “It’s about the care and the support and the smiles they provide. Many of the participants are only experiencing that during the time they are in iHelp when they’re interacting with the volunteers and the staff … it really helps to have volunteers that care about them and their success.”
Some continuing volunteer roles include dinner drop-off, food pantry workers, rental and utility assistance administration, mask sewers and hosts for donation drives.
While current volunteer needs are primarily for LSS-SW’s programs in the East Valley, they need in-kind donations to support efforts around the Valley, officials said.
“Donations are vital to keeping our operations strong amidst the pandemic. Our biggest needs are laundry and dish detergent, gloves, trash bags, paper products, cleaning supplies, bottled water and supermarket gift cards,” Ms. Phillips said.
Donations can be delivered or shipped to the LSS-SW administrative office at: 2502 E. University Drive, Suite 125, Phoenix, AZ 85034.