In COVID-19 crisis, Louisville Joy Center is safe haven for homeless

Mar 31, 2020 | by Brad Rowland

In COVID-19 crisis, Louisville Joy Center is safe haven for homeless

By: David Ibata

Every fall with the approaching holidays, The Salvation Army Christmas Joy Center in Louisville, Kentucky, is a bustling place; families come to sign up for the Angel Tree program, and hundreds of volunteers prepare thousands of packages for gift-giving. The rest of the year, the building is quiet.

Not so this spring. With the sudden onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the Joy Center is being pressed into service as an emergency homeless shelter for up to 100 people diagnosed with or exposed to the coronavirus. Living on the streets with inadequate shelter, food or health services, and often with underlying medical conditions, homeless residents are among those most vulnerable to the disease.

"This time of year, there's not a whole lot going on in the building," said David Yarmuth, community relations director for The Salvation Army Louisville Command. With the coronavirus outbreak, "the city asked us what we could do beyond our normal day-to-day operations."

The Joy Center immediately came to mind.

A former Nabisco warehouse in an industrial park on the south side of Louisville near the airport, the center has a large open interior, covered vehicle bays and more than 30,000 square feet. Purchased by The Salvation Army about four years ago, it is home base for the Louisville Command's mobile feeding units (canteens) and for storing non-perishable food items.

Heavy-duty shelving units were repurposed as bunk beds. Large, thick mattresses were spaced six to 10 feet apart. One part of the building houses people who have been diagnosed as carrying the COVID-19 virus; the other part, physically separate by a concrete wall, is for those exposed to the disease but not yet showing symptoms. The city has provided portable showers and restrooms.

Two officers from the Portland Corps in Louisville have volunteered to wear protective gear to minister to the guests. A local nonprofit, Phoenix Health Care for the Homeless, is on site monitoring people's health and offering acute care when necessary.

The Louisville Command's kitchen is working overtime to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for a growing population in need at the Joy Center and elsewhere. Nearly 2,000 meals a day are being packaged in to-go boxes.

At command headquarters, the former Louisville Male High School, The Salvation Army has made its gymnasium available to accommodate up to 400 unsheltered men and women. The "healthy shelter" is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Guests are given three meals a day, and the city has brought in portable toilets.

The Salvation Army also is working with a local food bank, Dare to Care, delivering food to infected persons sheltering at home and to senior citizens who can't get out.

"If any organization is equipped to meet this type of need, it's The Salvation Army," Yarmuth said. "These are times communities here and across the world look to us – when people are scared, losing hope, losing their jobs."

"After the virus has dissipated, people will still need us; the effect on their financial status will be enormous. As in any disaster, we'll meet the initial need and be there afterwards to help people and their community's economy."

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