By Mary Ellen Mitchell, co-director
In the past two years many, our guests among them, were sent the mixed message that the highest and best contribution to society was isolation, unless you were an essential worker, at which point it was showing up at work despite an absence of childcare or living wage pay. At Lydia’s House, we filtered through these conflicting messages, worked hard to stay open, juggle our own childcare, and write Covid safety protocols while also attempting to keep abreast of the thousands of situational outbreaks, CDC guideline changes and opinion pieces on best practices.
We knew that the guests’ and former guests’ experience of Covid was different from the staff experiences; we knew that running a homeless shelter was different from almost any other work during the pandemic… but in the midst of the crisis it was hard to gain clarity on what the best path forward was, why social distancing felt futile, or why vaccines had little appeal to our guests. Considering this challenging situation from where we stand now, here are some reflections on lessons learned:
Social distancing efforts weren’t worth the loss of community or accountability in our context
Early in the pandemic we limited capacity of the shelter and divided families into suites with kitchenettes. At first we offered hot meals delivered to rooms, but when it was clear that those were mostly being thrown away, we stopped. We reduced contact to case management on the porch and occasional interactions as staff cleaned the kitchen. While we still offered a place to sleep at our shelter we offered very little else for a long period. We call the guests that were served from March 2020 to October 2021 “pandemic guests” and, honestly, we don’t know them. We did realize, after some time, that they were getting to know each other and socializing between each other while they shared the house. In retrospect, that Covid protocols weren’t central to our families isn’t a surprise: when faced with this crisis, it seemed to just layer over the crisis that is life for the very poor in our circle, especially those in shelter. Asking them to attempt to distance in a congregate living setting was unrealistic at best. Covid faded into a backdrop of broken relationships, pending evictions, children’s behavior problems, and sadness that life isn’t working, with or without a pandemic.
When vaccines were widely available and it became abundantly clear that the health risks to our in shelter families (young women with young children) was low, that they weren’t social distancing anyway, and that this model was so far removed from our vision of hospitality, we shut down the suites, restarted meals at table and started requiring vaccines for adults. To this date, in the most draconian or lax of standards, we haven’t had a Covid outbreak at the shelter. We have, however, spent many hours writing and re-writing Covid protocols, moving furniture and dish bins around, and asking each other “Who was LaTonya? Was she a pandemic guest? Does anyone remember what she looked like?”
Kids in crisis need to go to school
As soon as schools closed down we got to work offering alternatives. Among them: 1:1 tutoring, small group tutoring, providing internet, dropping off home school materials, offering lists of educational apps, buying workbooks, offering childcare, providing lap tops, setting up home school stations. We went all in! What we know happened, however, is that our moms, like all moms, were overwhelmed, kids hated online classes, and many of the materials we dropped off ended up in the trash. National outcomes reveal kids, especially poor kids, are behind by as much or more as the school they lost. Many of the kids in our circle were fully online or hybrid for all of the 2021 school year. They lost the social support of school, breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria, and reading at grade level.
My older kids, on the other hand, went to in person school every day at Good Shepherd Catholic Montessori, as did the small group of Lydia’s House kids and my youngest son Jacob, who were enrolled in our partner preschool, Azalea Montessori. We at Lydia’s House are now helping more aftercare families apply for Ed Choice vouchers to go to private and parochial schools, hoping they can get back into stable school environments.
Isolation paired with an inability to contribute entrenches trauma and despair
When Annie was born, in 2009, we were in the great recession. I got laid off from my job at Xavier University and offered very generous unemployment benefits. It should have been amazing but I felt demoralized applying for jobs I didn’t want to keep benefits on, when really I wanted to go back to work. At the same time I felt obtuse for wanting to go back to work when I could not pay for childcare and collect a generous amount from the government. Eventually, I decided to go back to work for my own mental health. The short term net loss in dollars was substantial but I didn’t regret it.
The Federal Government just tried that experiment on a massive level. I know that being paid to not work seemed like the best option for many, but staying home as a “contribution” is, as a guests told us, depressing. In the bestselling book on trauma treatment and recovery, The Body Keeps the Score, the author writes, “The antidote to trauma is competence.” While competence can be gained outside of work by, say, taking an art class or teaching oneself to cook, self-led attempts at competence and contribution also typically lack accountability. If I decide to shut down this internet cooking class, so be it! Becoming more competent pairs well with either community or commitment, though ideally the three need to go together. If the pandemic was a collective trauma, we need to respond by re-engaging the world in ways that increase our competence in the context of community and commitment.
Our culture of distraction on screens is toxic
Before the pandemic, Lydia’s House had a strict “no screens in common spaces” rule. It required constant enforcement, but was central to our vision of community. In March of 2020, we gave that up and put free Wi-Fi in the shelter. When I went to the Lydia’s House kitchen a few times during the shutdown, I encountered adults looking at phones while they never acknowledged my presence. Considering we weren’t supposed to even be within 6 feet of each other, I guess that was fair.
My own observations and experience from this dark time is that there’s only so much internet scrolling and Netflix watching to do before we truly feel awful; there’s research to say that time spent on social media negatively impacts self-esteem and mood. New revelations re: Facebook show that the platform prioritizes discord and polarization as a way to keep our attention. If competence is the antidote to trauma, I would posits screens are the incubator. When distracted scrolling is how we might default in isolation, I want to highly endorse work or education or basically anything involving real humans instead. While I wish our Lydia’s House families had more life giving ways to engage real human contact, especially through work, what I don’t wish is that we all had more time to sit at home and stare at our phones.
Sporadic cash payments and delayed government programs were confusing and led to temporary, unsustainable change
Debating how much to pay people to stay home and then debating when to remove cash payments so as to incentivize the same people to go back to fast food work or hotel maid jobs is the intellectual labor of those in media, think tanks and in government. The distance from the Fed or the Wall Street Journal to the lives of very poor, single parents is far. On the ground, a lot of our moms just stood confused, not knowing when and if stimulus checks would come, why food stamps fluctuated rapidly, or how long monthly child payments would come. It was a sometimes fun/ sometimes awful mystery each month.
Meanwhile, many government agencies went silent: our local Section 8 office stopped processing vouchers for a long period of time in 2020, it took hours to get through to unemployment hotlines, and rental assistance dollars meant to prevent eviction or stabilize rents took months to receive. In one case, a Lydia’s House landlord partner agreed to take rental assistance in lieu of rent for a former guest (who missed payments while sick with Covid), and ended up waiting 7 months and sending over a dozen emails before receiving $900 in payment from a government pass through agency. Fortunately, this landlord is patient and financially able to weather nonpayment, but many other landlords are not as patient, financially stable, or supported. By the summer of 2020 Lydia’s House created our own internal assistance fund, with few strings attached, and managed to keep all but one family in our circle stably housed; similar families who lacked relationship circles with quick access to cash did not fare as well in preventing eviction. While we’ve often lobbied the government to be more generous to single moms in poverty, we saw in the pandemic the limits of government response and the necessity of smaller circles of relationship to make quick and agile decisions.
Food stamps are better than food pantries; being able to buy, grow or procure your own food in the context of community and responsibility is better than either of these
During the pandemic five Norwood churches or non-profits offered food pantries. Norwood is three square miles big. The government supply of canned and shelf stable food (condensed soup anyone?) was so abundant it got dropped unsolicited at our guests’ doors. When I did apartment inspections, I found said food still in boxes, in the corner, months later. As the nation geared up to fight an invisible war by (kind of) staying home, the op-ed writers again battled on how to keep us from starving. Eventually food stamps increased, so much that families of 5 were receiving $785 a month. I was in favor of the increase because it was the simplest response, though it also didn’t stop nearly constant food distributions from happening all over our city. The impulse here to support neighbors was a good one and perhaps single people on fixed incomes did need this, but families receiving large food stamp benefits didn’t. As we open the gates to reengage society, more than canned food, families in our circle need opportunities to contribute in the context of community and commitment. Our hope is that local churches will redirect this energy toward knowing families and responding from a place of relationship. We’ve been meeting with church leaders to rethink a place based response to poverty in our city.
The pandemic has been demoralizing. I’m tired and want to forget a lot of the last two years! However, we would be remiss if we failed to reflect on what’s happened so far, take stock of our regrets and failures, and learn how to be better together. At Lydia’s House we’ll continue adult vaccine mandates because we want to do our best not to spread Covid in our shelter, but we’re back to mandatory shared meals, no screens in shared spaces, shared chores, children in school or daycare every day (if it’s open) and a requirement for adults to be enrolled in education or training if not working. This may sound like a high bar for a house of hospitality, but this time has taught us that good hospitality asks something of all of us: we have to show up for one another, be vulnerable to seeing each other’s humanity, work to become more competent in the ways we contribute, and give opportunities to our children. We frame our model of hospitality in this way because the narrow path to abundant life is filled with responsibility, ever doing more with and for each other, and growing better at the tasks God calls us to. While a temporary reprieve may seem like a needed respite, indefinite reprieve from our commitments to one another is a recipe for depression, boredom and discontent.