It’s 9:30 a.m. Sunday morning and inside the Enoch Davis Center is abuzz with volunteers who are sorting, bagging, and packing boxes full of donated cereal, a mix of fruit and vegetables, granola bars, juice boxes, and cloth masks. Outside one by one, the group grows in size as they linger under the alcove to get out of the heat. They all wait for the same thing: a food box to sustain themselves, or a couple of friends until the next meal service or food pantry day. The common denominator between the hungry and the help is the COVID-19 virus.

In the beginning

On March 25, 2020, the message of the COVID-19 virus was clear: for people with sufficient resources to stay home, stock up on food and supplies, and avoid group activities. While many of Pinellas county families and homeless were already experiencing food insecurities, these shutdowns and restrictions created layers of adversity. And while social distancing is necessary to limit the spread of the virus, anything that would prevent people from access to group meals or food banks puts families, seniors, and the homeless at risk of malnutrition, disease, and hunger. Many of those affected cannot afford - nor do they have a place to - stock food and supplies. Among those who can, many need transportation assistance to and from food banks and meal-service locations. Many of this population are vulnerable and cut off from resources especially when it comes to transportation.

Without Local Assistance, Many Would Go Hungry

According to Karen Powell, spokesperson for the Sunday morning food bank at Enoch Davis Center, “We use to have 125 people show up. First, we would give them a hot meal in the auditorium, then they would pass through the lines of food and fill their box. We would also spend time with anyone who needed to talk or needed encouragement. Not anymore.” Powell went on to share, “All of these people walk here. Well, there may be one or two cars and if that is the case there are four or five people from a community who come together. In the two hours, we give out the food boxes we may only see 25 to 30 people.” Powell and her team of volunteers disperse food boxes three times a week at various locations.

Outside, in the alcove of the Center, faces peer through the glass into the hallway lined with boxes overflowing with food. Even from a distance, you can see the weariness. But they wait patiently. This group is willing to tell you the struggle of living on the streets during the age of the COVID-19 virus.

Michael, a disabled veteran shares, “It has not been easy. I ride a bike everywhere. I can’t carry no food box. I come here to get what I can carry in my bag. They won’t let me come through any of them drive-thrus. They threw me off the property at Midtown. The police don’t want you congregating. Not sure what we are supposed to do.” 

There are 21 Mobile Food Pantries currently operating in South St. Petersburg. However, it is difficult for someone with no access to private transportation to access.

According to a study done by the Homeless Research Institute, Population at Risk: Homelessness and the Crisis of COVID-19, “The potential for the homeless population growth during COVID-19 is an immediate concern.” Adding to the issue is the upward trend of homelessness in an older population which has increased 22 percent since 2016.

The homeless are already vulnerable; adding to their plight of poverty and hunger, the COVID-19 virus worsens the challenges they already face. Now with social distancing, which is the most effective way to slow the outbreak, the past strategy of getting by is now obsolete. For the thousands of homeless individuals scattered throughout Pinellas County, the safety measures are not only out of reach, they are not an option.

Ideally, we should find a solution. But the facts remain, more money, more support, and more resources are still in need. As a county, we can only hope that the COVID-19 virus will change the model of strategy that we inflict on the homeless.

If you like this story, check out this one on Spoon.