By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 12, 2020
ATLANTA—The Central Night Shelter is facing its first full winter season in the midst of the pandemic.
As the temperatures dipped into the 30s in early November, volunteers on the ground floor of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception served scores of people.
Cathal Doyle, the leader of the all-volunteer effort, said the downtown Atlanta refuge for men who live on the streets swiftly closed two weeks early in March in response to the coronavirus outbreak. An anonymous donor paid for the more than 100 men to be sheltered in another facility safely, he said.
This season means doing something different for the ecumenical partnership between the Catholic church and its neighbor Central Presbyterian Church as the virus still sickens and kills people. Some 8,300 Georgians have died from COVID-19, according to Georgia public health officials.
The shelter marks its 40th season bringing in men from the cold from November to April. Unlike other years, the shelter won’t be a place to escape the cold. At least initially, it will be helping those in need with meals.
The anniversary brings up a mix of emotions. Volunteers are glad to help people. At the same time, they hate how their services are needed and homelessness remains a crisis.
“The first night for me is always bittersweet. You know, you see people who are excited to be inside and excited to get out of the cold,” said Doyle. “And normally, it’s mild, but last night it was cool. It always makes you feel a little bit worse.”
The pandemic means volunteers are fielding hard questions from the guests.
“There were a lot of familiar faces and a lot of guys who are asking us, you know, ‘when can we come in?’”
The numbers of men who came in last year were butting up against the maximum capacity and at times, the decision was made to exceed the shelter’s capacity to get more people off the street, Doyle said.
“The fact is that we are needed. We have an amazing volunteer base that supports us every year and is willing to move mountains to help us,” he said.
Karen Stephens and Jim Cameron oversee volunteers from Peachtree City United Methodist Church. Upwards of 200 people from the church are committed to help the shelter and its clients, she said. The church has participated for 25 years at the shelter, always being responsible for the first and last weeks of operation.
Driving an hour to downtown Atlanta, the church members recently prepared home-cooked meals of chicken Alfredo, beef tips and rice and hamburger casserole to distribute, along with “love gifts” of hand warmers, socks and coats, Stephens said.
Stephens said she felt both heartbreak for not being able to sit and visit with the shelter guests as usual, but also joy-filled that there was a small way to help.
The pandemic has shrunk people’s lives, but the shelter gives people a chance to be empowered, she said.
“We live in a world where we’re constantly told about what we cannot do. We just need to figure out what we can do,” said Stephens.
Health guidelines in a pandemic
In general, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report housing people is a critical community function and should stay open with proper spacing and improved ventilation. But local leaders know the situation best.
The shelter was over capacity last winter when the decision to close came from medical experts.
With open spaces and mattresses crowding the floor, shelter leaders feared an outbreak would overwhelm volunteers and the guests, Doyle said.
The shelter relies on an all-volunteer group of people to cook meals, talk with the men and stay overnight as chaperones. Doyle said the volunteers and men housed at the Shrine and Central Presbyterian Church were at risk.
“So, if one was to unfortunately contract the virus, the chances are that it would go through the shelter very quickly,” he said.
The shelter worked since the summer to get ready for this season, he said. In August, they polled its crew to get a sense of what people would be comfortable doing, said Doyle. With that information and relying on medical experts, the shelter came up with a six-step reopening plan.
It opened its 40th year in phase one—handing out meals.
Nightly, packages with three meals of dinner, breakfast and lunch are distributed. The donated meals are prepared by volunteer cooks and distributed to men through the ground floor of the Shrine of Immaculate Conception Church and then the men leave into the night.
The phases would slowly increase the beds in the overnight shelter, once it was considered safe. Phase two is opening at 25% capacity with enhanced safety measures eventually leading to the final stage of full opening.
The executive council, along with consulting medical experts, would determine when to move to the next stage.
Stephens said her volunteers are committed to the shelter and are grateful its leadership took the virus and its potential to infect visitors and guests seriously. Sharing the survey, talking with each other and figuring how to serve has been empowering by giving people a sense of purpose, she said.