As the weather turns cooler and the virus surges, where do those experiencing homelessness turn?

Neither Tyler's Salvation Army nor Longview's Gateway to Hope have had a single positive virus case so far.

The ubiquitous red kettle during the holiday season helps power The Salvation Army’s assistance to the most needy in East Texas. 📷 courtesy Salvation Army, Tyler

For the typical Tyler resident, avoiding infection from the COVID-19 virus mostly involves social distancing, wearing a face mask and frequently washing hands.

Those steps are simple enough for most residents but are almost insurmountable for some — Tyler’s unsheltered population. As the weather turns cooler, those people will begin to filter into Tyler’s Salvation Army, the city’s primary residential solution for the homeless.

The Salvation Army has a total of 200 beds available for those experiencing homelessness and who need assistance for more than a few nights. There is also an emergency shelter in the same building that is open anytime the temperature falls below 40 degrees.

The East Texas Human Needs Network, ETHNN, created a COVID emergency response this spring for unsheltered residents with underlying health risks. It was a temporary measure that ended soon after Gov. Abbott lifted Texas’ Stay at Home order May 1.

As the program closed, ETHNN was able to refer those clients to various shelters, crisis centers and substance abuse centers.

Gateway to Hope, a part of the Hiway 80 Rescue Mission, has a homeless shelter in Longview but must transport Tyler residents who qualify on the 38-mile trip.

Those experiencing homelessness face problems with the simplest of precautions — washing hands — but homeless shelters so far have not directly seen cases of COVID-19.

“It’s by the grace of God,” Cindy Bell, director of development at Salvation Army, said. “We have been very blessed.”

Most Tyler residents don’t have a struggle following safety guidelines but, for whatever reasons, decline to take precautions, which may be one of the reasons the number of active cases reported by the Northeast Texas Public Health District has stayed stubbornly high and grown.

The latest figures released by NET Health show 196 people are currently hospitalized in Tyler with COVID-19. That number is out of a total of 3,557 ongoing active cases now in Smith County.

NET Health reports 129 confirmed COVID-19 deaths have happened here.

The good news is that the large majority have, or will, recover. So far, 4,643 of the 8,388 people diagnosed with the coronavirus have been able to fight the infection.

Mr. E., a Tyler resident experiencing homelessness who received help from East Texas Human Needs Network last spring. 📷 courtesy of ETHHN

These numbers don’t take into account those who might have died or become ill never having been diagnosed or confirmed with the infection, as reported in statistics gathered by the Tyler Loop’s Stephen Fierbaugh.

As businesses and residents relax their attention to virus prevention measures, the infections are rising, not falling. New cases in Smith County have matched or are higher than they have been at any time other than in July.

For the Salvation Army, the danger of COVID-19 means strict adherence to safety measures and requiring screening before anyone is allowed to stay overnight.

“Everything has changed since March,” Bell said.

She said COVID-19 had led the organization to rethink virtually every area of its operation.

The homeless shelter is still open with masks required and as much social distancing as possible. To date, she said, there have been no positive cases in the facility.

“We’ve been very blessed in our shelter,” she said. “We’ve seen no cases there. We’ve been very careful.”

Tyler Salvation Army’s Cindy Bell, left, on a visit to Three Lakes Middle School last spring. 📷 courtesy Three Lakes Middle School

The Salvation Army’s emergency area saw its first large influx of the fall several weeks ago when a cold front took the low temperatures into the 30s.

Those using the temporary shelter are asked to sleep with one person’s head to another person’s feet to maximize social distancing while allowing the greatest number of people who can be housed.

“(Two weeks ago) we saw quite a few people when the temperatures got cold,” Bell said.

While a number of activities have been curtailed in Tyler, Bell said that the Salvation Army is still getting good support from the community.

“People have been wonderful,” she said. “The Smith County Medical Society brought us 1,000 masks and that was tremendous. Another woman was concerned about the children because most of the adult masks don’t fit children that well. She sewed masks designed to fit children.”

That woman brought 100 of the masks to the shelter, which currently houses 17 children.

Bell said the homeless shelter can use donations of any kind, but particularly those that will help with providing toiletries and other essentials.

“Some people come in with literally the clothes on their back and nothing else,” she said.

Other Salvation Army activities have been changed or curtailed, too.

“The evening meal we offer to anyone is now boxed up as a to-go meal to be eaten outside the facility. Our (thrift) store closed in March when we had an employee get COVID but she got over it without any problems.”

The store has reopened with customers required to wear masks and donation pick-ups have resumed.

Gateway to Hope’s Errin Dixon says there have been zero COVID cases at their facility in Longview.

At Gateway to Hope, Errin Dixon said those wishing a place to stay overnight would be able to use the Longview shelter if they were prepared to follow the Hiway 80 Rescue Mission’s rules for the residential program.

Gateway to Hope is open mornings, providing those homeless or simply “down on their luck” a place to shower, shave and take care of other personal needs.

As with the Salvation Army, the organization pre-screens everyone who comes for help with standard questions and a temperature check before letting them use the facility.

Social distancing is also enforced for the 40-60 people who use the center each day.

“We’ve had not one case of COVID-19,” Dixon said. “I attribute that to God’s grace.”

Despite the difficulties, the Salvation Army plans to continue both its kettle drive, collecting money around Tyler, and the Angel Tree at Broadway Mall.

Bell said the Angel Tree, which mostly benefits children in need, also has a number of senior citizens who have no family and no one to brighten their Christmas season.

“There are people who just have no one to visit them or provide them anything during the holiday season,” she said. “We want to make sure that no one is forgotten.”

The Angel Tree is adorned with names of those who can be adopted by the public with new toys or clothing sent to the Salvation Army. The donated goods must be received buy the first week in December.

The kettle drive, which is a historical fixture of the Salvation Army nationwide, will have people ringing bells and collecting money at locations across the city throughout the holiday season.

Some of those will be people hired by the organization but many of them are volunteers from various civic organizations or churches. Bell said volunteers are still needed. To volunteer, go to www.salvationarmytexas.org/Tyler.

Both efforts kicked off Nov. 13.

Phil Latham has been an East Texas journalist for more than 45 years as a reporter, editor, publisher and editorial page editor. He writes a weekly column available at https://platham56.wixsite.com/website. He has also written two novels. Readers can contact Phil at platham5@gmail.com. He lives in Smith County with his wife and three pups.

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