What has been inconvenient for most people could turn out to be disastrous for Sharli Rogers and the clients she works with as coordinator of Bowling Green’s Room in the Inn nonprofit that ministers to the city’s homeless population.
A coalition of about two dozen churches that provide shelter and meals to the homeless, Room in the Inn started its four-month cold-weather season this week, and Rogers is already seeing an impact from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our numbers were a little higher than usual the first couple of nights,” said Rogers, who has coordinated the local program for all seven years of its existence. “The number of people trying to get into Room in the Inn is going to be higher.
“People are getting evicted (from rental properties), and the Salvation Army bed count is lower because of social distancing. We’re expecting more homeless people and fewer beds.”
Fears that the economic disruption caused by the pandemic could skew the homeless numbers this year could be coming true, based on the experience of Rogers and the Ryan’s Making a Difference Outreach that provides meals to homeless and economically disadvantaged people each Saturday.
Rogers, who was busy painting social-distancing markers this week in the parking lot of Room in the Inn’s headquarters at 1033 U.S. 31-W By-Pass, may need a good number of those markers.
The program, which served 273 individuals last year, has already seen 80 new clients sign up this year.
“We expect those numbers to continue to grow,” Rogers said.
What she doesn’t expect is a corresponding growth in Room in the Inn’s capacity, given the constraints of COVID-19.
“Some of our congregations have opted out or consolidated with other churches,” Rogers said. “Most of them are back, but they may be serving fewer people to allow for social distancing.
“We’re still trying to find more congregations. We would like to have two congregations per night. Otherwise, we’re going to have to hand sleeping bags to some people.”
Now that it has a larger headquarters on the bypass, Room in the Inn has taken steps to avoid sending clients out to sleep on the streets.
“We have a dedicated space where people can have access to computers,” Rogers said. “We worked all summer to help folks access that (federal) stimulus money.
“Some were able to make down payments on an apartment. That really helped, but we’re seeing new faces all the time.”
Ryan’s Making a Difference Outreach, which is organized by local teenager Ryan Depp, is seeing a similar trend.
“Our numbers have been a lot higher this year than in the past,” said Doug Depp, Ryan Depp’s father. “We have gone from feeding 25 to 30 people to feeding 50 to 70.”
Fortunately, the Depps’ organization has finally achieved nonprofit status, allowing it to do more fundraising to meet the growing need.
“We have been blessed with some groups stepping up with some pretty big donations,” Doug Depp said. “What we’re seeing is a lot of low-income people who are housed but who don’t have the funds for food like they used to have.
“We’re seeing a lot of people we’ve never seen before. They’re people who may have to choose between paying the electric bill or buying food.”
Doug Depp said anyone interested in donating to Ryan’s Making a Difference Outreach can visit the organization’s Facebook page.
Room in the Inn is also looking for donations, volunteers and churches to periodically serve as hosts for the homeless. Information about volunteer opportunities can be found at the Room in the Inn Facebook page. “We definitely need funds, and we’re doing a sleeping bag drive now,” Rogers said. “Homelessness is not going away any time soon.”