Coronavirus forces Michigan soup kitchens to feed hungry from a distance

Detroit has an estimated 11,000 homeless people, who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

DETROIT — Every morning at 6:45, workers arrive at the Manna Community Meal soup kitchen and quickly set up two assembly lines.

Peanut butter and jelly on one side, and cheese sandwiches on the other. Volunteers will make hundreds for homeless people from across Detroit who show up daily, hungry for food.  

Marianne Arbogast, co-manager of the soup kitchen in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, would normally make vats of black bean, lentil or great northern soup and the crew would set up tables in the dining room and serve coffee and donuts. 

But since Gov. Whitmer signed an executive order on March 16 banning dine-in bars and restaurants, the crew at Manna Meal has closed the dining room and now serves lunch outside in brown paper bags. Volunteers wear masks and gloves to serve those standing outside in the cold, standing 6 feet apart.

"We're not letting people into the building except to wash their hands and use the restroom just a few at a time," Arbogast said. 

“[This is] often the only community they have, and it's not like they're going home to a family. They're just in real isolation."  

Often forgotten even in the best times, the homeless population is especially vulnerable during the coronavirus epidemic. Well-known precautions to slow the virus’ spread such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing are far more complicated without basic amenities.

For the homeless, water to drink can be a luxury, let alone to wash hands. And avoiding crowds is difficult when sleeping in shelters, experts said.

"The goal of any shelter is to house as many people as possible. It isn't always practical to be 6 feet away from each other," said Tasha Gray, executive director of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit. 

"Shelters really had to get creative on how they're able to meet that requirement. They have implemented policies whereby they're trying to stagger meal time so that there are not too many people in a room at once." 

About 11,000 in Detroit are homeless, according to the Homeless Action Network, while Goodwill Industries estimates the statewide population is closer to 65,000.

Gray said Detroit officials have been working diligently to make sure that proper precautions are in place to fight the spread of the COVID-19 virus within the homeless. 

"They have nurses and medical staff from the health department who are coming into the shelters and taking temperature checks and doing health assessments," Gray said. They are doing all that they can to make sure that people experiencing homelessness are safe and healthy.”

Patrick Whittaker of Detroit said soup kitchens like Manna Meal are safe spaces. The soup kitchen, which is rooted in the Catholic Worker Movement, has served the homeless since 1974.

"I live under a bridge, and there's nobody to talk to you." Whittaker said. "It's a sense of community, and that means a lot, especially in these times. It makes our heart feel good that people care." 

The disruption to daily life for the homeless is different from the rest of the population. There are few places for them to just sit, and even fewer places to use the bathroom. 

"Everyone is worried about where they are going to get their next meal; there are less and less soup kitchens open now," Whittaker said. "What would happen if this place didn't exist?" 

Manna Meal is not a big soup kitchen. On average there are 10 people there to make food and help set up and break down. But since the coronavirus outbreak, they have been working with a skeleton crew of three to five people. 

"Most of our really good volunteers who have been coming for decades, and know the kitchen in and out, they're 65 or older and can't come," Arbogast said.

Seniors remain vulnerable to the coronavirus, and Arbogast said she hopes the kitchen doesn’t have to close because of a lack of volunteers.

On the city’s east side, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen usually serves 1,400 to 2,000 sitdown meals per day. Since the coronavirus outbreak, it has closed its dining room and now distributes 600 box lunches per day outside.

"We do that so people can take them and leave. We're very conscious of trying to keep the distance in the operation,” said Brother Bob Malloy, director of pastoral care at the soup kitchen, which is run by monks. 

“The homeless need good nutrition,” he added. “We're trying to do as much as we can to keep them healthy so that they're not spreading the virus.”

On March 23, a Capuchin Soup Kitchen employee tested positive for COVID-19, which sent Malloy and several staff members into isolation and forced the distribution center known as the Capuchin Services Center to close.  

"Both buildings had to be sanitized, hopefully, will open this weekend [April 3] again," Malloy said."

"We're constantly strategizing in terms of what happens when we lose more staff because when somebody tests positive, then all the staff around that person has to go in quarantine." 

Through it all, Malloy and his staff look forward to having workers back and all facets of the soup kitchen up and running again.   

"It's something that we've been doing for 91 years," Malloy said. "To make sure that the marginalized in society, whatever the need, we must reach out to them; it's where Jesus spent most of his time.” 

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