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The poor in a pandemic

Vulnerable people suffered the most from the hardships of 2020

A woman at a homeless shelter inside the San Diego Convention Center in August Associated Press/Photo by Gregory Bull (file)

The poor in a pandemic

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately hurt those who were already hurting: The homeless, prisoners, poor immigrants, and others in poverty. The pandemic also struck the nonprofits working to help them. As the long spring dragged into summer, protests against police over accusations of brutality against African Americans spread around the country and spurred lawmakers and police departments to make changes. In the midst of all the challenges and opportunities, Christians continued finding ways to quietly meet the needs of those around them, and WORLD’s annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion logged another successful year.

Nonprofits struggle to provide support

When millions of Americans lost work this spring, many turned to food banks, free medical clinics, and other charitable nonprofits for help. The nonprofits that the government considered “essential services” scrambled to adjust their procedures to meet safety guidelines while also stretching to meet increased needs. Some saw a drop in donations as their supporters lost jobs. Others suffered from lack of volunteers, many of whom were retirees and most at risk from the virus. But as the government passed the CARES Act and states provided aid, some local charities saw an unexpected decrease in clients, leading them to wonder if the government handouts were wooing clients away from more challenging, personal programs. The government’s Paycheck Protection Program was a lifeline to many nonprofits and some churches, allowing them to stay afloat as the pandemic dragged on. Time will tell how many charities survived this year. “We’re going to do what we can today for as many people as we can,” said Joe Huggins, executive director of Home Works of America. “We’re going to tell the story to as many people as want to listen, and God’s going to provide.”

Controversial efforts to protect prisoners

As the coronavirus advanced, officials took steps to reduce prison populations. Inmates live in crowded conditions with limited ability to maintain hygiene and social distance, putting them at increased risk of catching and spreading the virus. “The most important thing is to try to keep COVID-19 out of prisons,” Prison Fellowship President and CEO James Ackerman told WORLD in April. “An outbreak of COVID-19 in the general population of a prison population is going to be a nightmare.” And it was, for many facilities around the country. Some lawmakers and law enforcement protested when states released large numbers of inmates to early parole, though most states and cities only released nonviolent inmates nearing their parole or release dates. Prisoners who remained confined had long, boring days as chapel services, classes, employment, and outside visits were canceled. Prison ministries tried to adjust their services, writing letters to stay in touch with inmates and replacing classes and meetings with books and sermons.

Push for policing changes

On May 25, African American George Floyd died after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd’s death sparked protests across the country, with some devolving into looting, rioting, and violence. Policing became a major focus, and some protesters began calling for cities to defund police departments. Lawmakers and police departments began making changes, though none went so far as activists’ demands. Ballot measures in the November elections revealed a continuing interest in police and criminal justice reform. Many states voted to loosen drug restrictions in the name of equality, since minorities tend to be arrested for drug crimes more frequently. All the while, churches and ministries wrestled with how to promote racial reconciliation. Many Christians joined in protests, and others asked fellow believers of other races or ethnicities about their experience or joined in prayer for change.

Pandemic and the homeless

Homeless people are especially vulnerable to catching and spreading disease, and the government enacted two eviction moratoriums to keep people from becoming homeless during the pandemic. With shelters operating at reduced capacities, some cities and states began buying or renting hotels to provide rooms for homeless people to quarantine or avoid getting sick. San Francisco came under fire for providing alcohol and cannabis to homeless people staying in the city’s hotels. Meanwhile, tent encampments in the city exploded in number as police stopped enforcing camping restrictions, to the detriment of neighborhoods like the Tenderloin.

Initial numbers from COVID-19 testing showed that the virus had not devastated homeless populations, as advocates anticipated. But the homeless still suffered as the COVID-19 shutdowns prevented them from accessing air conditioning, restaurants, and services as usual. Now CARES Act funds are expiring at the year’s end, just as the weather turns cold and COVID-19 cases surge nationwide. Cities, states, and counties are facing tough decisions about whether to extend their contracts with the hotels or begin winding down their programs.

Hope Awards 2020

Despite the barriers, Christian ministries continued showing effective compassion to the poor, and WORLD recognized its 2020 winners of the Hope Awards for Effective Compassion. My colleague Angela Lu Fulton covered El Shaddai Refugee Learning Center, a school in Malaysia, and I visited and wrote about four nonprofits in the United States. Gilgal in Atlanta, Ga., helped women to overcome past addictions, relying on God. The Dream Center in Easley, S.C., let homeless people attend classes and live in a tiny house village to transform their lives, one aspect at a time. Refugee Hope Partners in Raleigh, N.C., offered friendship and support as refugee families arrived and worked towards independence. The Overflow Café in Cambridge, Md., was a place where people from all backgrounds could find love and help meeting material and spiritual needs. To learn more about poverty fighting, don’t miss Season 2 of WORLD’s Effective Compassion podcast, coming January 2021!

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas.



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Tim Miller

So, where I live and worship, the pandemic has been a bit of a mixed bag (in purely economic terms -- not considering that many families have lost loved ones, and that's devastating.). I think for some poor families, at least, it's been easier in the short term, because during the pandemic, where I live at least, for right now increased federal aid means less of a barrier to receive help ... food banks aren't requiring zip codes or means testing, utilities have put moratoriums on shutoffs, evictions are still prohibited, and the stimulus checks mean cash in the pockets of families who normally subsist on in-kind help such as food stamps. Doctors offices and schools have gone virtual, which has drawbacks but also means that transportation isn't as big of an issue, reducing stress and expense. Amazon is offering $15/hour jobs to nearly anyone with a high school diploma, and restaurants and grocery stores are begging for employees. 

But moratoriums don't last forever. Cash stimulus is nice, but not sustainable, and Amazon may not be able to continue the hiring boom. I think the next year might be a harder one for poor families. I hope not.