Recently, I was asked to write a post about homelessness in Chester during the coronavirus. They sent me three interviews from residents of the Chester Salvation Army shelter who lived though totally different experiences being homeless during coronavirus. My job – if I choose to accept it – was to turn those interviews into a story.
Like an actor sold on a script after reading it, I was blown away by the interviews. But, in order for me to create the story, I needed to chat with someone who worked at the shelter. Fortunately, I found the Salvation Army case worker who helped conduct the interviews and he allowed me to interview him.
Here’s what I came up with as published in the Swarthmorean paper on May 21.
CHRIS, CARLEEN, RONALD (and MATT)
Chris Dickerson drove 18-wheelers for 23 years before illness sidelined him. Carleen Bayne studied early childhood education before becoming a mother to five children and discovering Buddhism. Ronald Owen had a long career as a contractor, specializing in flooring and roofing. Between them, they have cancer, respiratory disease, and scoliosis.
All three are homeless. All of them found temporary shelter at the Salvation Army in Chester. And all of them were living at the shelter when Covid-19 raced through the 32-bed facility last October, temporarily shuttering it and sending its residents to quarantine in a Travelodge near the airport.
Dickerson and Owen contracted the disease. Bayne didn’t. But the pandemic created extra difficulties for all of them.
Race, Covid-19, and disability: each of those conditions presents its own challenges. Combined, they can induce hopelessness, desperation, and despair, as well as misunderstandings.
People who have pre-existing conditions and live in congregate settings — as many disabled Americans do — are most at risk of dying from the virus. Those taking shelter at the Salvation Army in Chester are no exception.
Chris Dickerson, 60, grew up in Chester. As a long-haul trucker, he traveled all across the country, and he says he still has fond memories of those days. When the pandemic hit, Dickerson, who has stage-four metastatic breast cancer, reports that he struggled.
“I would go out for walks” before the pandemic, he recalls. “I would go to the park. I would go to the library and read. So you know, when they started closing those things down, it just kinda messed my psyche up.”
When he contracted Covid-19 in the shelter, Dickerson’s first reaction was to wonder who had given it to him. But then, he says, “I got off the blame game. Because I figured, ‘It’s going to happen anyway, or it wouldn’t have happened.’”
After blame came worry. “I’m already compromised,” Dickerson says. “I have a low white blood count and breathing problems.” He worried he might end up in the hospital on a ventilator. Luckily, though, he says, “I didn’t get it as bad as some others.”
When the shelter had to shut down, Dickerson worried about what would happen to him. “I couldn’t have went to my sister’s because my mom was there, and she’s 96. I couldn’t take it to her,” he recalls. “And I couldn’t go to my daughter’s because I got grandchildren there. So my concern was, where would I go if I have nowhere to go?”
He says he was relieved when the Salvation Army put its residents up in a hotel, though it was hard to “have to be patient and sit still.”
Covid also affected Dickerson’s relations with members of what he says is a close-knit family. The pandemic hit that family hard. Two of Dickerson’s siblings got sick, and one of them blamed Dickerson for infecting him. Then, their 96-year-old mother died (Covid may have been a contributing factor), and his sister wouldn’t let Dickerson attend the funeral because of Covid fears. “She was just looking out for the family,” he says, adding, “It just hurts so bad.”
After the pandemic is over, Dickerson says that his goal “is to unify with my family like I was unified before Covid.”
Carleen Bayne avoided catching Covid during the Salvation Army outbreak, but she struggles with other health issues. “I have scoliosis in my spine,” she says. “I’ve received Social Security Insurance since 2009 because I am unable to work.”
Before Covid, Bayne says, she enjoyed being around her family. “Laughing and shopping,” she recalls. “Going to the movies.”
After the pandemic started, she says she became very careful, avoiding public places and always wearing a mask. “I’m more cautious,” she says. “I always wash my hands.” When the priest at the Buddhist temple she belongs to was hospitalized for a month with Covid, she realized how serious the pandemic was.
Her Buddhist faith has helped her get through the pandemic, Bayne reports. “I chant ‘Namu Myoho Renge Kyo’ for world peace,” she explains, adding that the pandemic is “making everybody in the world go crazy.”
Ronald Owens had respiratory problems well before the Covid-19 pandemic. Every couple of months, he says, his breathing troubles flare up. This happened while he was staying at the shelter during the pandemic, and he ended up in Riddle Hospital.
“My lungs had fouled up on me,” he recalls. “I went in the hospital and really got the effect of what the hospital workers were going through.”
Owens reports that he was met at the hospital “by six people in space uniforms telling me it’s going to be all right — just relax — as they shoved things up my nose and shoved dyes in me.” The hospital staff were “afraid for their lives,” he says. But, he adds, “I was 10 times more scared than they were.”
Later, back at the shelter, Owens did test positive for Covid-19, but he never showed any symptoms. Still, “I was scared to death,” he recalls. “I didn’t know how to talk to my family and tell them that I came down with this. Of course, they were scared and upset.”
Beyond his own precarious situation, Owens is concerned about the effects of the pandemic across the country. “It’s really starting to take a lot of people away from families,” he says. “It’s something that you can’t see, and it’s really taking its toll on a lot of people.”
As for what lies ahead, “My hope for the future is that everybody really takes this seriously and gets vaccinated,” Owens says. “I don’t see this going away anytime soon.”
MATT BEERS – The Shelter
Matt Beers, a caseworker who has worked in the Stepping Stones Ministry of the Salvation Army in Chester for seven years, says eviction is the most common reason people end up homeless. During the pandemic, he reports, many sought refuge at the shelter after being evicted despite a nationwide eviction moratorium ordered by the Centers for Disease Control last September.
“A lot of good people become homeless,” Beers notes, adding, “Many just need a little help — some more than others.”
“Life is tough,” Beers says. “And being in a shelter is the toughest.”
Beers reports that many people who seek shelter at the Salvation Army have given a great deal to the people in their lives. “They help out family and friends,” he explains. “But in doing so, they put themselves in a bad position and become homeless.” He adds that such people often “get played, hustled, screwed over by family members or friends.”
“There are a lot of people with good hearts here,” Beers says. “I try not to get attached because there’s a lot of heartbreak and sad stories.” He often tells shelter residents, “You are at the bottom right now. You need to help yourself before you can help others. Be selfish until you’re back to being able to help other people.”
When the pandemic hit, Beers got worried. “I was concerned, given the number of health conditions our residents have,” he recalls. His fears were realized when the Covid-19 outbreak was detected, initially through daily temperature checks. After one resident tested positive, staff immediately started scheduling tests for all residents at a nearby Rite-Aid drive-through testing site. Almost everyone tested positive.
Luckily, all the residents recovered.
Editor’s note: This is the second of three articles about how Covid-19 is affecting people who are living with disability in our community. The Swarthmorean is running these articles this spring at the invitation of Immaculata University professor Kelly George of Wallingford, principal investigator on the project, “Witnessing the Impact of Covid-19 in Disabled People’s Lives: A Web Archive and Community Newspaper Series.” The project is supported by a grant from Villanova University’s Waterhouse Family Institute for the Study of Communication and Society. By lifting up the personal stories of local community members and connecting these to systemic inequalities, the project shows how storytelling can be used to promote social justice.
Everyone quoted in this article has given written permission for their words.