Rough looking man sitting on bench, bundled up, sleeping. Can You Help the Homeless in a Pandemic?

As other organizations shut down, the Martinsville-Henry County Warming Center opened up.

MARTINSVILLE – Cruise ships stopped sailing. Airlines placed restrictions on international flights. But the Martinsville-Henry County Warming Center didn’t let a global pandemic halt their 2020-21 winter season.

Ironically, as other businesses, organizations and agencies closed across the country, the seasonal warming center in Martinsville reopened their doors.

As temperatures dipped in November, Forest Hills Presbyterian Church offered their facility, providing another year of assistance to those stranded in the cold.

“Regardless of COVID, people still deserve and need housing,” said Ariel Johnson, the volunteer daily operations coordinator at the MHC Warming Center. “COVID didn’t eliminate homelessness. If anything, it’s become a bigger issue.”

When the temperature drops below 35 degrees, the center opens. Just like last year, volunteers offer guests a transportation option. This year, guests may arrive at the Blue Ridge Regional Library in Martinsville or Collinsville for a ride to the center.

Also similar to years past, guests receive a warm meal upon entry and breakfast before they leave the following morning.

However, not everything remained the same from the 2019-20 season. This year, there are several notable differences, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

RELATED: Bill Would Change How Virginia Schools Provide Healthcare

Changes at the Warming Center

Johnson detailed the uncharacteristic season.

Noticeable differences in operations from years past ranged from performing daily COVID-19 screenings on guests to the number of volunteers able to help at the center.

“The biggest difference is that we were sanitizing before [the pandemic] and clearing as thoroughly as possible. We’ve have to go even a notch above what we were already doing,” Johnson said. “We take temperatures as people come in and we do the COVID assessment as they walk in.”

However, Johnson expressed that one of the greatest pandemic impacts devastated the visitors’ typical social interactions.

“I think the biggest difference and hardest difference for me is social distancing and promoting that,” Johnson said. “Like, last year, our guests could come in and they could play cards and they’d play board games and they’d, like, socialize with one another.”

This year, the warming center placed necessary limits on activities, adhering to social distancing guidelines.

“It’s hard because this is probably one of the only places that these individuals have any type of interaction with other folks because, like, homelessness in itself springs about, like, a different type of isolation. They’re not people that are going to family gatherings. They’re not going on family trips out of the state and stuff like that,” Johnson said. “So it was hard to really be able to say, like, ‘Hey, you guys have to stand six feet apart. Sorry you can’t play board games, you can’t play cards, do a puzzle together.’”

The population

Given the pandemic and the projected national rise in homelessness, it only seems natural that the MHC Warming Center would host more individuals this season. Surprisingly, the opposite happened.

“It’s a huge difference,” Johnson said. “Last year on average, we’d see about 16 people or 12. This year, the most we’ve ever had in one night was, like, seven.”

She explained that the difference arose because of special funding made available, as well as other local organizations assisting the homeless by putting the individuals up in hotels.

“Not as many folks are needing to use our services and the folks that are kind of exhausted their other resources,” Johnson said.

No matter the number of people staying at the warming center, they can only go if someone else is there – a volunteer.

Several times over the month and a half since the center opened, the doors remained closed. That’s because the volunteers simply weren’t available.

“It’s a struggle. We have seen a large decrease in volunteers. And even in the last month, we have lots of volunteers that will sign up and then last minute, they’ll have to text us and say that they’ve been in contact with somebody with COVID,” Johnson said. “That’s hard because if we don’t have the people to serve our folks, then we are forced to look into other options.”

Additional options often involve hotel stays, which add up quickly despite receiving a discounted rate. For a donation-based organization like the MHC Warming Center, those costs greatly impact the budget.

“We only have so much money in the bank to be able to provide for hotels and stuff like that,” Johnson said.

RELATED: Virginia Woman Wants an ‘Equal Entrance’ for Everyone

Feeding the hungry

Another benefit to staying at the warming center is that guests receive a free meal upon entry.

“Our folks can’t go into restaurants. They can’t go into lobbies, gas stations, anything like that,” Johnson said. “So sometimes the only food that they get is at night when they come to our center and they get a meal. They can’t go anywhere, like McDonald’s. They don’t have money.”

COVID further complicated the situation.

“It’s hard for them to go to organizations to get signed up for benefits and stuff like that because it’s not walk-in hours. You have to call and make an appointment,” Johnson said. “Some of our people don’t have phones. So we’re kind of their only resource right now that they’re able to get.”

While the center hasn’t had to turn anyone away due to COVID symptoms or suspicion, they have had to take extra precautions.

Unfortunately, a volunteer recently tested positive for COVID-19. Taking precautions, the warming center closed and a professional company sanitized the building.

A few guests also had contact with the volunteer. The warming center provided a hotel stay for the exposed visitors through the end of their viral window. While necessary and generous, the stay further impacted the center’s donation-run budget.

“We currently have three guests in hotels right now in quarantine because they were in contact with somebody. That was upwards of $1,000 to serve those folks in that capacity, but it was something we had to do because these people don’t have homes,” Johnson said. “So when they’re sick, they don’t have a bed to go lay in. They don’t have anybody helping them out.”

Helping at the Warming Center

The center announced through a Facebook post in October that it will remain open until March. The weather during that month determines the specific closing date for the season.

Until then, the center expressed needs ranging from monetary to physical donations. In addition to meals and money to provide them, the center commonly uses cleaning products, rags, towels, shaving cream, laundry detergent, toilet paper and sugar.

However, the most prevalent need is an individual’s time.

“Volunteers are our biggest need. I want volunteers to feel comfortable coming to the center and volunteering because that’s most valuable thing to us – people,” Johnson said. “And I believe we’re doing everything in our power to ensure our volunteers are safe, our guests are safe. That’s the biggest need.”

Those interested in volunteering overnight may contact the MHC Warming Center hotline at (276) 207-9660.

For those interested in making physical or monetary donations, they may send or bring their gift to Forest Hills Presbyterian Church, located at 725 Beechnut Ln, Martinsville, VA 24112.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com