As many as 200 low-income residents and people experiencing homelessness gather each day for lunch inside the Emmanuel Dining Room on Jackson Street in Wilmington.
But the scene changed this week as diners waited in line for “grab-n’-go” lunches, dispersing to steps and curbs to eat sandwiches out of styrofoam containers.
The Ministry of Caring, which operates the Emmanuel Dining Room at three locations, is just one organization changing its homeless services because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s alright, as long as I get the food, I don’t care. I just don’t want to go hungry,” said Brad Cole, who’s been homeless for two years and is concerned about contracting COVID-19. “I’m out on the street and around a lot of people, so I’m worried about it a little bit.”
The Ministry of Caring, which serves about 500 meals a day provided by 90 organizations across the three locations, is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to limit gatherings to fewer than 50 people.
“The CDC is recommending we don’t have large groups of people together,” said Cindy Gamble. “Whether we would like to have people in the dining room or not, it’s not a good approach in this quarantine to have large groups together.”
The organizations’ shelters and senior residences also are undergoing a quarantine, and practices such as frequent hand washing and social distancing are in place.
Wilmington’s Sunday Breakfast Mission is keeping its dining room open to residents during the pandemic, however.
“People need to understand the critical services we’re providing are still necessary to the homeless and hungry and we cannot leave them out in the cold,” said director Tom Laymon.
Staff and volunteers sanitize surfaces throughout the day, he said, and encourage social distancing despite serving about 200 people each day. Laymon said diners will enter the building in intervals, 4 to 6 feet apart from each other. He said he also wants to provide masks to those who cough or sneeze.
For overnight residents, those who are older or have underlying health conditions are isolated from others, Laymon said.
While organizers of shelters say they are educating clients on COVID-19, some people experiencing homelessness say those who sleep on the streets are less informed.
“It was a big surprise, because I don’t watch television because I’m on the street, and all of a sudden, a bug came through the air,” said Chris Siler, who has been homeless for six years.
Laymon said if any of his clients show symptoms, he wants to help them get tested. A state Division of Public Health spokesperson said the department is still rolling out plans for people experiencing homelessness with the Department of Emergency Management.
Siler said he has a message for others: “Stay positive, stay strong. We’ll get through this.”