How The City’s Homeless Are Coping With COVID-19

Photo of Indianapolis resident Brandon Eaton
Brandon Eaton, who lives on the streets of downtown Indianapolis, is among an estimated 1,500 people experiencing homelessness in the city.

Photo by Carson TerBush

Like most of us, Carolyn Bolin found out about the COVID-19 pandemic on the news. She was shocked as she watched the public health crisis worsen, spreading to the United States and soon reaching her own city, Indianapolis.

“I never thought that there’d come a day I’d see anything like that happening,” Bolin says.

Unlike most of us, when businesses closed down and Indiana’s stay-at-home order was put in place in early March, Bolin didn’t barricade herself in her house for the foreseeable future. That’s because she didn’t have one. In the midst of a global pandemic, a recession, and the largest civil unrest movement of this century so far, she and her fiancé, a disabled ex-Marine, spend their days on street corners holding a cardboard sign that reads “Homeless, anything helps,” “Smile :)” and “God bless!” in blue marker.

Bolin is part of Indianapolis’ homeless population, which exceeded 1,500 people at last count in 2019. Just as COVID-19 has changed almost every aspect of daily life, it has also reshaped homelessness and affected how nonprofits aiming to help the homeless function. Wheeler Mission, founded in 1893, offers food, shelter, clothing, and a case worker to people in need, like Bolin and her fiancé. Despite COVID-19 outbreaks, a lack of volunteers, and funding difficulties, the mission has continued operations through the pandemic.

William Bumphus, the director of Wheeler Mission’s Indianapolis men’s shelter, was one of 18 staff members who got sick with COVID-19 in early April. Bumphus, 40, says he contracted the coronavirus after working at the mission during the early stages of the pandemic.

In addition to the mission’s sick staff members, 27 of the mission’s 177 guests who were tested had a confirmed case of the new virus, and one guest died of the illness. “Even though it’s only one person (who died), it’s still one too many,” Bumphus says. “We hope he heard the Gospel, and we hope that his stay here was pleasant given the condition that he was in.”

Exterior of Wheeler Mission's men's shelter in downtown Indianapolis
Wheeler Mission’s men’s shelter has faced extra struggles in the face of COVID-19.

The outbreak was caused by the lack of social distancing, says Bumphus. In a shelter focused on serving as many homeless people as possible, where each dormitory is packed with up to 60 bunk beds and the crowd of guests in the day room doubles the nightly population, personal space is rarely a consideration.

Steve Kerr, Wheeler Mission’s executive vice president for advancement, says that to allow for social distancing, the mission invested in four additional locations to spread out the bunk beds needed to service its male guests, including a church and a building at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. “We were immediately concerned about the spread of COVID-19 among our guests,” Kerr says. “Many of them are very vulnerable, and a lot of them have underlying health conditions. So we took immediate actions working with the city of Indianapolis and the Marion County Health Department.”

Even as Bumphus and many of his staff fell ill to the virus, they continued to work to limit its effects on the homeless population serviced by Wheeler Mission. The pandemic has made some aspects of helping the mission’s guests more difficult—for example, more people became unemployed in the coronavirus recession, making it more difficult to help guests find jobs as well as increasing the number of guests at the mission during the day, further reducing social distancing.

Kerr says the closure of many businesses and public buildings, like the Indianapolis Public Library, where many individuals experiencing homelessness go to use computers or check out books, eliminated resources and day-to-day shelters for the homeless, adding strain to the mission.

However, Bumphus says little has changed in the mission’s day-to-day operations and goals: providing food, clothing and shelter to the mission’s guests, plus case-management services to help them get back on their feet.

“We still serve a whole bunch of guys, we still offer food—breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” he says.

Just as many operations at the mission are the same today as they were before COVID-19, life on the street remains largely unchanged. Bolin says she and her fiancé were sleeping under a bridge for the night several weeks ago when they were attacked by another person experiencing homelessness.

Bolin lost blood from a gash on her right temple, where staples she got at the hospital to close the wound still glint under her pale hair. “It’s very upsetting, it’s very scary,” Bolin says. “You’re out here, you don’t know where you’re going to go from one day to the next, and you don’t know if you’re going to come in contact with somebody that has (COVID-19).”

Despite the safety offered by shelters like Wheeler Mission, though, Bolin and her fiancé don’t want to go there because they would be separated. Wheeler Mission offers a shelter for men and one for women and children in Indianapolis, so the couple would have to stay apart.

Another Indianapolis resident experiencing homelessness, Brandon Eaton, agrees with Bolin that he would rather not go to Wheeler Mission for help. Even though fewer people are giving him money these days and he’s been eating most meals out of trash cans since the food-stamp office closed due to the pandemic, he’s worried he’d get sick if he went to Wheeler. “I don’t really go to Wheeler Mission,” Eaton says. “The homeless people there are nasty and they might spread COVID-19.”

Even before the pandemic, though, Eaton never considered going to a place like the mission. He prefers his current lifestyle. “I’m a homeless person that actually likes living on the street,” Eaton says. “If I have everything together for me, I can live on the street perfectly.”

Living on the street today is in some ways harder than it was a year ago. For people experiencing homelessness who think they may have COVID-19 and aren’t staying in a shelter, the Marion County Health Department will offer help, says Bumphus. The department has set up places for homeless people to quarantine if they need them. “If there’s anybody who’s homeless who can’t self-isolate, you don’t have anywhere to go, contact Marion County Health Department and see what kind of help they can offer,” Bumphus says.

Bolin and Eaton agree that if they thought they had symptoms of COVID-19, they would go to the hospital right away. Eaton says he has received no help from the city in dealing with the pandemic. He hasn’t received a blue Indy mask, and doesn’t know where to get one.

While face coverings aren’t required for homeless people according to Governor Eric Holcomb’s recent mask mandate, they are still an important part of staying safe from COVID-19. The state is providing free masks to anyone who applies, but the application requires computer access and an address where the mask can be shipped—both things many homeless people in the city lack.

Bumphus and Kerr say that the best thing people can do to help out the homeless population of Indianapolis is to support organizations like Wheeler Mission that offer services. Kerr said while the mission doesn’t want to discourage people from giving money to individuals on the street if they want to, he recommends giving out bottled water or care packages with packaged food instead.

“The best way people can help is to align themselves with one of the organizations that serves the homeless and make a contribution there,” Kerr says. “That way they know that their money’s being put to use for what they want it to be used for.”