Photos by Robert Cooper.
We are all so very tired of COVID-19. We’ve quarantined in our homes, cleaning out our closets and kitchen cupboards, watching too much TV and wondering when, if ever, we can head to the grocery store again without taking multiple precautions, maintaining a safe distance from others, and considering whether the errand we’re about to do is worth the risk.
But what about the people who have no homes?
I’ve arranged to do a ride-along for a few hours on the Joseph’s House Outreach Van with Tiana Minervini, Associate Director of Outreach, and her colleague Ptah Ivery, Outreach Advocate. Driving to that appointment, I pass the electronic billboards on I-90 reminding us to wash hands, wear a mask and social distance. I wonder how these mandates come into play when working with people living on the street.
Minervini greets me on the sidewalk with, “We had a death yesterday.” She sighs and climbs into the van’s passenger seat next to Ivery, who is driving. I ride in the back seat next to a cooler full of sandwiches and plums, a case of water and two boxes of snacks. We begin by heading to the local Stewart’s, to get a coffee for one of the program participants who “will always take a coffee but only accept a sandwich if she badly needs it.”
As soon as the van pulls into Stewart’s parking lot, two homeless men approach. Minervini knows one of them but not the other, “Are you hungry?,” she asks. “What’s your name?” and hands them sandwiches and water. Ivery knows both men and follows up with one of them, asking “What happened with that upholstery job?”
We head down to the river and park next to a woman charging her phone at an electrical box. While Minervini delivers the coffee to one woman, Ivery talks with the woman charging her phone, checking on her welfare. They’re climbing back into the van when Minervini spots a man she doesn’t know, wearing a backpack, who looks like he may be homeless.
She climbs out of the van again with a bottle of water, asking, “Are you thirsty?” He accepts the water and explains that he’s just traveling through Albany, trying to get to the Lake George area somehow. As we pull away, I ask Minervini how she approaches people when she’s not sure whether they’re homeless. “I just say I’m from outreach and ask if they need any assistance.”
Minervini and Ivery’s cell phones ring frequently as they travel their route. They explain that calls come in as the result of cards they hand out to people on the street who can call and let the van staff know where they are and what they need. “They know when the van is out in the community. They might call and say, ‘There are five of us here in the park. Can you come?’”
The van continues its route, stopping at each location where program participants are likely to be found, distributing food and blankets. Minervini asks repeatedly, “Do you have a place to stay tonight?” and as she leaves each person, she says, “OK – be safe.”
Two vans, one in Troy and one in Albany, provide outreach seven days a week from 2:00 – 10:00 p.m. to those who are homeless, offering sandwiches and snacks, water and blankets. Minervini says, “People have to be in the shelters by 8 p.m., so we have the van out for a few hours after that to give people who aren’t going to the shelter time to be in their spots. There are times when we’re just throwing blankets over people when we find them, to help keep them warm.”
The number of homeless people served by the outreach vans in Albany and Troy has doubled due to COVID-19, from 425 to 837. In August alone, the van had 1326 contacts with 192 homeless individuals. Minervini and Ivery speculate that this is due to lost employment, unstable housing, and termination of utilities for renters. “Even though evictions are halted, some landlords have turned off the heat or water to force tenants to move out,” explains Minervini.
As access to public bathrooms has decreased due to shuttered businesses during COVID, the outreach program has provided and maintained portable sinks on the streets of Albany and advocated for the installation of additional porta-potties.
The outreach team carries a thermometer in the van to check temperatures if needed. They also distribute masks and hand sanitizer and have information about COVID testing sites taped to the dashboard. “But our folks have not been sick,” says Minervini. “COVID is harder to contract when people are outside. Homeless people already distance pretty well and they don’t really share their belongings with each other.”
In addition to sandwiches, the van has also provided 40-50 hot meals twice a week, with the help of Feed Albany. Minervini explains, “Some food pantries and shelters closed during the pandemic, so we’ve provided meals to some people who may not be homeless. We’ve had to explain, though, that this change was only due to the pandemic and we wouldn’t be able to sustain it in the future.”
After a few hours, the van drops me back at my car and Minervini and Ivery head out to continue their route. Driving back to my home, I hear Minervini’s voice echoing in my thoughts: “What’s your name? Are you hungry? Do you have a safe place to stay?”
And I’m grateful.