COVID-19 complicates effort to help homeless out of the cold

Posted at 6:03 AM, Dec 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-03 08:15:48-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — As below-freezing temperatures swept into Middle Tennessee this week, cold weather canvassers with the group Open Table Nashville prepared for a winter unlike any other.

Every year, the non-profit patrols Metro to help shuttle people experiencing homelessness to the Metro cold shelter. It's an effort to get people off of the streets during dangerously cold nights.

"Our main priority is to get as many people to metro's cold weather shelter as possible," India Pungarcher said.

But this year that priority has been complicated by COVID-19. The organization is using fewer volunteers, and those that can help, are limited to downtown and aren't allowed to use their personal cars to bring people to the shelter. Instead, the group is renting a bus, that will be left at half capacity.

The changes mean some people may be left waiting in the cold for longer.

"We would love to be able to take every body in but we're trying to keep our volunteers safe as well," Caroline Erickson said.

Workers said another challenge is that people experiencing homelessness are more spread out than they have been in previous years, since usual gathering spots are closed.

"We're trying to get the word out that we have pickup spots, but that's really difficult to do right now, because the libraries aren't open and there aren't as many community meals," Pungarcher said. "We just have less human power, are trying to cover the same geographic area and, if anything, an increased number of people that are on the streets right now that need a way to get to the cold shelters."

So the non-profit is urging Metro leaders to help by allowing free rides to the shelter on WeGO buses when temperatures dip to dangerous levels.

"We're pushing WeGo and the city to make bus rides free on cold nights so that any one that wants to seek shelter has a ride to get there, Pungarcher said.

Workers said the best way to help with Open Table Nashville's cold weather canvassing is through donations. You can find out how to give at the organization's website.