This rapid evaporation of volunteer pools threatens to strain the already-limited capacities of many organizations. Mason Lowe, the deputy director at the Pike Market Food Bank in downtown Seattle, said the corporate groups who usually send volunteers have been canceling shifts, and overall turnout was down by more than half last week. Instead of allowing people to shop, many food banks are closing lobbies and sending staffers through the aisles to fill orders. Others are prepackaging groceries and leaving the bags out front for curbside pickup.
The food bank has been less busy since the outbreak began, as those who can self-quarantine are mostly staying inside; so far, the teams Lowe has cobbled together have been capable of meeting reduced demand. “But at some point, people’s pantries are going to run dry,” he told me. The food bank’s affiliated senior center is providing take-out meals for housed members, and has canceled art classes, bingo games, and all other nonessential activities—“the things that make a senior center a positive place to be.” (Unhoused members may dine in.)* Lowe called last week one of the toughest of his life.
Aware of the stakes, experts caution that widespread suspensions of social services are unnecessary and potentially dangerous. Joshua Bamberger, the associate director of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California, San Francisco, recommends that volunteers take precautions: Minimize prolonged exposure, don’t come in if you’re sick, and wear respirators and goggles when interacting with people who may be exposed.
“[We] may be the only source of food that they have,” he said. “Workers need to take adequate precautions, but we may not be able to stop providing food to people, or else they won’t get food at all.”
But in the midst of so much uncertainty, for each individual, determining how to proceed boils down to part judgment call and part educated guess. “It’s a reasonable choice for people who are volunteers to say, ‘I need to stay home because I can’t put my family at risk,’” said Barbara Poppe, the former executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Many volunteers are older, which means they could put both themselves and their guests in danger by showing up. Poppe also points out that even young, healthy people who volunteer could catch the disease and then unknowingly pass it along to others.
“I would expect that among those working to support the homeless community, we’re going to see high rates of COVID-19 because of the close-up human-type work with people experiencing homelessness,” she told me.
Read: Why the coronavirus has been so successful
At the Phinney Neighborhood Association in Seattle, Susan Russell, the hot- meals program coordinator, began instituting stricter coronavirus protocols well before officials made them mandatory: She replaced self-service snacks and coffee with pre-apportioned trays, installed a hand-washing station at the front door, and locked every other entrance to the building. If someone steps outside for a cigarette, they have to wash again upon entering. Volunteers work the faucet and distribute paper towels, while diners pump their own soap.