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Homeless advocates adjust in the age of a pandemic

Matthew Lane • May 3, 2020 at 8:51 AM

KINGSPORT — The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every person in the country in one way or another from the young to the old, the rich and the poor and, of course, the homeless people in our region. 

Will Shewey, pastor of Shades of Grace United Methodist Church in downtown Kingsport, said that since the shutdown of non-essential businesses and government offices took place in March, he’s seen an increase in the number of homeless people who come to the church for meals.

The church used to serve food indoors, but since the shutdown began, Shewey and his volunteers have been providing the meals out the back door to meet social distancing guidelines.

“We have not missed serving a single one of our scheduled meals since the pandemic started,” Shewey said.

Six weeks ago, Shades of Grace was serving 60 to 70 people every day. Today, the church is serving upwards of 80 on any given day.

“These are people who have just recently become homeless as a result of the pandemic or temporarily unemployed,” Shewey said. “I’m not really surprised. Most people are two paychecks away from being homeless. All of this came about so suddenly. No one saw this coming.”

A couple of days ago, a car pulled up outside Shades of Grace. An older lady and her husband got out, along with a couple of teenagers and two small children. Shewey said the family was living in their car when the pandemic broke out.

“Most of the folks we’re dealing with are local folks who were born here or moved here when they were young. A few are total strangers to the area,” Shewey said. “And I realize some of them don’t recognize there is a pandemic. They’re just trying to survive day to day.”

Michael Gillis, who operates Hunger First in downtown Kingsport, said he’s not seeing the same increase in homeless people coming to his doors as Shewey is, but he believes the pandemic has simply made the homeless population more visible.

“Now that my place is closed and (Shades of Grace) had to close, we’re seeing the reality of the number of people on the street,” Gillis said. “Now you’re forced to see the reality because they’ve got nowhere else to go.”

Hunger First (829 Myrtle St.) was founded in 1996 and provides food and clothing to anyone in need, no questions asked. Since the shutdown began, Hunger First has had to manage with reduced hours and days of operation, opening from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the clothes closet being closed until further notice.

Even though both organizations are essentially shut down, donations of food, clothes and other supplies are still coming in. Shades of Grace is doing a little better in this arena, but Gillis said Hunger First is receiving some as well.

Considering what these folks and the homeless population are dealing with every day, if you have a donation to make, both organizations would be more than willing to accept them. Gillis said he’s preparing for the influx of folks who will come to Hunger First once the shutdown is lifted.

“It’s a different world in which we live in. It’s strange times,” Gillis said. “We’ve lived through times like this before. It was just a much slower train to get information out back then. Now it’s instant and it comes with all kinds of crap. Everyone should take this time and reflect.”

Under state and federal guidelines, some businesses, restaurants and nonprofit organizations are starting to reopen or will be reopening soon. Gillis said he plans to follow CDC and Vanderbilt recommendations and probably won’t fully reopen until June.

Shewey said Shades of Grace will follow the mandate of the bishop of the Holston Conference of the UMC, who will be following the recommendations of the CDC and other medical professionals.

Shades of Grace can be reached at (423) 765-2440, Hunger First at (423) 765-1144.

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