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As COVID-19 cases rise, so does food insecurity among the homeless. Can food providers and shelters keep up?

As COVID-19 cases rise, so does food insecurity among the homeless. Can food providers and shelters keep up?

November 30, 2020

Omar Santos, a security staffer of 13 years for St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan Valley, and Susan, a volunteer who declined to give her last name, waved to residents Saturday morning as they handed out bags filled with food. Spaghetti and meatballs was the entree this week, paired with a bagel, salad, juice, and more. The line stretched around the block. After only half an hour of handing out food, Susan and Omar had distributed 200 bags.

St. Michael’s has run its Saturday Kitchen program for over 25 years, serving around 200 people each week in a regular year. Before COVID-19, people were seated indoors and given nutritious hot meals, but a lot has changed since the onset of the pandemic. Now they serve an average of 350 meals a week.

One man in line at St. Michael’s, who identified himself as homeless, expressed that COVID-19 has made it more difficult to get enough food each week, in part due to the closing of multiple food banks and soup kitchens across the city and longer lines at those still open. He emphasized how important food pantries and soup kitchens have been for him, adding, “You know, I don’t want to complain. Any food that we can get I’m grateful for.”

COVID-19 and the subsequent economic recession have led to drastic changes across the city. Ray Luetters, the Food Service Manager at St. Michael’s, has observed a record amount of homelessness and food insecurity while working at the soup kitchen during the pandemic, which many shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens have also struggled to keep up with.

Food pantry and homeless shelter coordinators said that the pandemic has led to greater expenses as the demand for services has increased, though funding has dwindled and the number of volunteers has decreased. As shelters and pantries are many people’s main source of basic necessities, these circumstances have led to a glaring food shortage.

Even before the pandemic hit, the situation was dire: At the start of 2020, New York City entered its fifth decade of a homelessness crisis. In April, the number of deaths related to COVID-19 among homeless people was 157 percent higher than the total number of deaths in an average month in 2019. Homeless shelters are typically crowded, which is conducive to the transmission of COVID-19,

However, according to the New York City Department of Homeless Services and Human Resources Administration, the recorded homeless population in municipal shelters decreased from 62,700 in January to 57,700 in August.

New York City homeless municipal shelter population

Total population

Total persons in families

60,000

60,000

50,000

50,000

40,000

40,000

30,000

30,000

20,000

20,000

10,000

10,000

Jan

Aug

Jan

Aug

2019

2020

2019

2020

* * *

Total families

Adults in families

Children

Single adults

Single men

Single women

20,000

20,000

20,000

20,000

20,000

20,000

10,000

10,000

10,000

10,000

10,000

10,000

Jan

Aug

Jan

Aug

Jan

Aug

Jan

Aug

Jan

Aug

Jan

Aug

2019

2020

2019

2020

2019

2020

2019

2020

2019

2020

2019

2020

Sources: NYC Department of Homeless Services and Human Resources Administration; NYCStat shelter census reports

New York City homeless

municipal shelter population

Total population

Total persons in families

60,000

60,000

50,000

50,000

40,000

40,000

30,000

30,000

20,000

20,000

10,000

10,000

Jan

Aug

Jan

Aug

2019

2020

2019

2020

Total families

Adults in families

Children

20,000

20,000

20,000

10,000

10,000

10,000

Jan

Aug

Jan

Aug

Jan

Aug

2019

2020

2019

2020

2019

2020

Single adults

Single men

Single women

20,000

20,000

20,000

10,000

10,000

10,000

Jan

Aug

Jan

Aug

Jan

Aug

2019

2020

2019

2020

2019

2020

Sources: NYC Department of Homeless Services and Human Resources Administration;

NYCStat shelter census reports

New York City homeless

municipal shelter population

T

o

t

n

o

a

i

t

a

l

l

p

u

o

p

60,000

50,000

40,000

30,000

20,000

10,000

Jan

Aug

2019

2020

50,000

T

o

t

a

n

i

s

f

a

n

m

l

o

p

s

i

e

r

l

i

e

s

40,000

30,000

20,000

10,000

Jan

Aug

2019

2020

20,000

T

o

t

a

s

e

l

i

l

f

a

i

m

10,000

Jan

Aug

2019

2020

A

d

u

l

e

m

i

i

s

a

l

t

f

s

n

i

20,000

10,000

Jan

Aug

2019

2020

C

h

i

l

d

r

e

n

20,000

10,000

Jan

Aug

2019

2020

20,000

i

n

S

g

l

s

e

a

t

u

l

d

10,000

Jan

Aug

2019

2020

20,000

n

g

i

l

S

e

m

e

n

10,000

Jan

Aug

2019

2020

10,000

n

e

S

i

n

g

l

m

e

w

o

Jan

Aug

2019

2020

Sources: NYC Department of Homeless Services and

Human Resources Administration; NYCStat shelter

census reports

Despite the apparent decrease in the number of homeless New Yorkers, this discrepancy can be attributed to barriers that the pandemic has presented to accurately counting the city’s homeless population, largely due to a lack of resources during quarantine. Changes in the locations of homeless residents, in addition to a potential increase in the number of unsheltered homeless individuals, may have posed challenges for recording an accurate number for the homeless population each month.

Accessing essential resources as a homeless person is already difficult during an ordinary year, but COVID-19 has further exacerbated issues that these New Yorkers face, according to John Avery, the Volunteer Coordinator at St. Michael’s Episcopal.

“I think the city did things to step up assistance, but you can see that people still need help. They’re still coming,” Avery said.

Almost three-quarters of the food pantries around the city reported an increase in visitors, and around one-third of those specified that the number had at least doubled, according to a June 2020 report by Food Bank for New York City. There was also a 91 percent increase in first-time visitors to New York City food providers from January to April 2020.

Luetters said St. Michael’s Saturday Kitchen has struggled to keep up with the increasing number of people in need of food. Because of COVID-19, its numbers have almost doubled over the course of a few months.

“The way that our numbers have risen, from 180-200 to 350-370 [a week], tells a story right there,” Luetters said. “There’s only so much oven, stove top, refrigeration. Our physical plan wasn’t built for this, so we’re trying to do as much as we can under the circumstances.”

Robin Klueber, who runs the Church of the Ascension Food Pantry in Manhattan Valley, also emphasized how a lack of funding has made providing for everyone who needs help difficult. The pantry has faced obstacles accessing grant money because of its designation as a religious organization, as well as the fact that they allow anyone to access their food without checking their income or homelessness status. The team doesn’t have enough staff to continue filling out grant applications if they know they will ultimately be rejected, Klueber said.

Each time the pantry distributes food, they spend around $10,000 to $15,000. Because of this cost, they had to decrease food distribution from a weekly to biweekly basis.

“We thought this was going to be a sprint. We thought we would just be doing this, at this volume and this frequently, until the government stepped in and did something. But it’s turned out to be a marathon because there’s not enough help,” Klueber explained.

Furthermore, the donations and groceries that pantries give out are not always accessible for the homeless, as canned goods require a can opener, raw meat needs to be cooked, and perishables need to be refrigerated, Klueber said.

One-third of food pantries in New York City were forced to close because of the pandemic. The remaining food pantries have been able to serve many of the people needing their help, but many visitors still leave with empty stomachs. In April, 48 percent of open food pantries and soup kitchens that were surveyed reported turning people away because of food shortages. This leaves approximately only 35 percent of the usual number of New York City food providers able to serve all visitors.

One-third of pantries closed.

Two-thirds of pantries are open.

48 percent of open pantries turned people away due to food shortages.

 

35 percent of total pantries remained

open and could accept visitors.

Note: Percentages are survey estimates.

Source: Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center; Food Bank for New York City

One-third of pantries closed.

Two-thirds of pantries are open.

48 percent of open pantries turned

people away due to food shortages.

35 percent of total pantries

remained open and could

accept visitors.

Note: Percentages are survey estimates.

Source: Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center;

Food Bank for New York City

One-third of pantries closed.

Two-thirds of pantries are open.

48 percent of open pantries

turned people away due to food

shortages.

35 percent of total pantries remained

open and could accept visitors.

Note: Percentages are survey estimates.

Source: Hunter College New York City Food Policy

Center; Food Bank for New York City

Avery noted that within an hour and half of handing out food, they usually run out. “We run out of food, and the line keeps moving quickly. People know that by 11:15, we’re wrapping up,” he said.

Coupled with the increase in the number of homeless New Yorkers and a general lack of funding, many shelters have seen a decrease in donations and in the number of volunteers. Around the holiday season, shelters usually see an uptick in these numbers. However, this year, many have worried that this may not be the case.

Despite COVID-19, the West Harlem Residence has been able to maintain the number of families that they serve because the shelter is broken up into 45 apartments, so people do not have to share a space with strangers. However, director Jocelyn Cuff has noticed that while they usually have families moving in and out more frequently, the families currently in the shelter haven’t been leaving, other than the few being granted NYCHA housing who are able to move out.

Further, the West Harlem Residence usually sees a large number of phone calls about volunteering and donations around this time of year. However, according to Cuff, they haven’t gotten a single call yet.

“We normally get a lot of phone calls during this time of people wanting to give and wanting to donate, and wanting to throw parties for the residents. We really have not had any calls this year. We’re not even hearing about donations,” Cuff said.

32 percent

of Manhattan

Emergency Food

Providers closed

by April 2020

68 percent

remained open

By April 2020,

32 percent

of Manhattan

Emergency Food

Providers closed

68 percent

remained open

Source: Food

Bank for New York City

Manhattan is slightly more equipped than the rest of New York City, as 68 percent of Manhattan Emergency Food Providers remain open compared to 62 percent across the city as a whole. However, almost three-quarters of the closed Manhattan food providers are in communities with the highest Meal Gap—a calculation of food insecurity based on the food budget shortfall versus the weighted cost per meal—even prior to COVID. These communities have had to endure further hardship and food insecurity due to food provider closures.

represents an Open

F

ood P

r

o

vider

2019 New York City Meal Gap

Meal Gap is the calculation of food insecurity based

on the food budget shortfall versus the weighted

cost per meal.

LESS FOOD

INSECURE

1M - 2.5M

2.5M - 3.5M

Community

3.5M - 4.5M

District 9

4.5M - 5.5M

5.5M - 6M

MORE FOOD

INSECURE

Note: Unshaded areas represent parks or cemeteries with no significant population

to calculate Meal Gap.

Sources: Food Bank for New York City; Feeding America

represents an Open Food Provider

2019 New York City Meal Gap

Meal Gap is the calculation of food insecurity

based on the food budget shortfall versus

the weighted cost per meal.

LESS FOOD

INSECURE

1M - 2.5M

2.5M - 3.5M

3.5M - 4.5M

Community

District 9

4.5M - 5.5M

5.5M - 6M

MORE FOOD

INSECURE

Note: Unshaded areas represent parks or

cemeteries with no significant population to

calculate Meal Gap.

 

Sources: Food Bank for New York City;

Feeding America

Further, soup kitchens and shelters have had to change their operations for COVID-19 safety, which has led to a decrease in the communal space that many homeless people rely on.

Ricky Weitzel, CC ’22, the director of personnel at the Community Lunch Soup Kitchen in Morningside Heights, detailed having to restructure in ways similar to St. Michael’s Saturday Kitchen. Instead of seating people in an indoor communal setting, they have to hand out bagged lunches to people waiting in line outside. While the essential part of these services—giving food to those in need—still gets done, the community aspect of sharing a meal with others is lost.

“It’s been a difficult time all the way around, the community has gone through a lot. The food is drying up,” Edward Baugh, who has been coming to St. Michael’s Saturday Kitchen for eight years, said. “Some people have screaming mouths that they literally cannot feed. The soup kitchens are a resource for us to come—and while we’re here, sometimes this is the closest that we get to people and fellowship.”

Staff writer Maya Mitrasinovic can be contacted at maya.mitrasinovic@columbiaspectator.com.

Graphics reporter Elizabeth Commisso can be contacted at elizabeth.commisso@columbiaspectator.com. Follow Spectator on Twitter at @ColumbiaSpec.

Homelessness homeless housing food pantry soup kitchens homeless shelters COVID-19 federal funding
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