Photo: QP, Boston and Rudy. Photo provided by Ripple Community, Inc.
This article comes from the June issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “Community in the face of COVID-19.” Read more reflections here or subscribe here to receive more original features in your inbox each month.
Like many U.S. communities, Allentown, Pennsylvania, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. When this crisis hit, many organizations and social service agencies in our area made the decision to close their doors. That was understandable. We all work to navigate the muddy waters of what is best for our community, organizations and staff.
But closing was not an option for Ripple Community, Inc., a conference-related ministry of Mosaic Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA. We needed to maintain contact with the families in our community-supported housing program, since many of their supportive services, such as mental health, were closed and their lives could quickly spiral out of control. We also needed to have a stable presence at our day center, which primarily serves people experiencing homelessness. Stay-at-home orders are meaningless for people who don’t have homes. And people who don’t have homes also lack other basic services that protect them in a public health crisis: running water, functioning bathrooms and kitchens where food can be safely stored and prepared.
So we are still here, doing what we have always done with and for our community. Things look different, to be sure. Everyone who enters our day center has their temperature taken, is asked if they have any unusual coughing or shortness of breath and gets doused with hand sanitizer, and we do our best to maintain safe physical distancing. Our staff members have new uniforms that include gloves and masks to keep them safe and healthy and ensure we can continue to do our work. Amid the new procedures and uniforms, our love for the people remains the same. Being open during the pandemic is how we make sure our friends know they are not forgotten or abandoned.
Even under normal circumstances, our unsheltered friends and neighbors live precarious lives. COVID-19 has shone a bright, public light on cracks in the system through which we have watched our friends fall for years.
One day, our friend Rafael came into our community center as he does most days. He appeared more tired than usual, but his temperature was in the normal range, and he didn’t have any obvious respiratory symptoms. He stopped by the snack bin and picked out some Cheetos, and a staff member handed him a sandwich and a hot meal.
Rafael found a chair at an empty table and enjoyed his meal. He usually moves between his table and the coffee station, but today he rested his head on the table. Later, we noticed he had fallen asleep in his chair. Occasionally, his body jolted from a deep cough. We took his temperature again, and it read 99.5.
Following our COVID-19 protocols, we moved Rafael into a separate room and called the hospital hotline. The nurse on the phone asked Rafael a series of questions. “How long have you had the cough?” “Have you been isolating?” She counseled him to come to the hospital and get tested. Staff sent a text to someone at the hospital, who arranged for a medical taxi to transport Rafael to the testing site. Then we sat with him and waited for the taxi to arrive. He didn’t appear to be afraid, but he had a lonely look on his face.
Who was caring about Rafael? Is there a family member or friend we should call? We didn’t want him to feel alone. If nothing else, at least he has us.
Before Rafael got into the taxi, we made sure his cell phone was fully charged. We said we would call later to check in.
We called two hours later. Rafael answered, but his voice was strained. He sounded stressed but resigned. He had been tested at the hospital and told it would be two to three days before he received the results. The staff at the hospital instructed him to go home and self-isolate until they got the results.
“That’s a little hard to do when you’re homeless, you know?” he said. We asked him to come by the community center the next day so we could make sure he had food and water. He spent the next three days wandering the streets with a cough and a fever.
Rafael’s story is tragic, infuriating and quite common these days. We know we can’t fix every problem or meet every need in our community. But we are determined to keep doing what we can, which is to be a stable, consistent presence. This has always mattered in our community, but it seems particularly important now. Our community building center has become the last refuge for our unsheltered neighbors in this challenging time.
Our staff of five has been working harder than ever, with less help than normal, and we are exhausted. Yet we wouldn’t have survived without the support from our local community and churches and area conference. Our partners have provided a wide range of essentials, such as blankets and tents, hygiene kits, coins and detergent for laundry, bags of snacks, cleaning supplies and over 1,000 sandwiches. Communities will take time to build, but if we all work together, we will be resilient. If you have the financial means or time to donate, search out organizations in your community that are caring for your most vulnerable neighbors. Find ways to be generous and share the love and presence of God.
Danilo Sanchez is housing director, and Sherri Brokopp Bender is executive director for Ripple Community, Inc., in Allentown, Pennsylvania.