How Loaves and Fishes Stepped Up to Serve St. Louis in 2020
Even before the shelter-in-place orders went into effect, Executive Director of Loaves and Fishes for St. Louis, Jacki MacIntosh, wondered what that might mean for her clients. Where does someone suffering from homelessness go when the whole world is told to stay at home?
“What do they do, how do we protect them?” MacIntosh asked of one of the most vulnerable populations of the pandemic.
But before she could answer that question, she and her staff had to figure out how to keep the organization moving forward.
Operating as a Household
First, Loaves and Fishes took stock of their organization, which is effectively split into two components: a food pantry and emergency shelter. The goal across the board was to limit contact.
In the pantry, they noted who was coming in and out every day and how that might impact the shelter program. “We were eliminating any people coming into the office or into our space that was not somebody who had already been here,” MacIntosh said. The pantry remained open, but was limited to curbside pick-up only. They also limited donations to essential items.
All of the swift changes were in an effort to keep shelter residents safe. The shelter functions as a communal living environment with residents staying in dorm-style rooms, meaning social distancing was not an option.
Instead, they looked at the shelter as one household. “We asked ourselves how we would handle this situation in our own families, where you have your parents and children all living in one space,” MacIntosh explained.
Clients were asked to only leave if they had an essential need. If they did leave the property, they had to be transported by a Loaves and Fishes employee.
This required more staff, especially since volunteers had been cut. “We shifted staff, brought them in and gave them additional hours to focus on transportation and getting people where they needed to go,” said MacIntosh.
Staying Connected with Clients
From the onset, MacIntosh and her staff communicated openly with their clients about COVID-19 and the changes that had to be made to keep everyone safe. “The clients had a say in what was going on. They had an opinion and were being heard,” she said.
MacIntosh said because of the shelter’s size – they serve 30 individuals per night– they’ve been able to build personal relationships with their clients. “Having those open and honest conversations has helped everybody. We recognize we’re all in the same boat,” she said
Although Loaves and Fishes never mandated regular COVID-19 testing or vaccination once available, because of their safety protocols and commitment from clients, they never had an outbreak among residents.
Stepping Up, Not Shutting Down
At a time when many organizations had to cut back on services, Loaves and Fishes knew that wasn’t an option for them. “We needed to step up instead of shut down,” MacIntosh said.
In addition to keeping the shelter up and running at 98 percent capacity, they also increased their total services by 60 percent. They provided utility payment support for 90 families, expanded Wi-Fi access in their building, and continued to teach courses to their shelter clients on financial literacy, tenants’ rights, and other topics.
Loaves and Fishes also used emergency funding from the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund to expand the isolation and quarantine center the organization operated through St. Louis County. “CSF went over and above to help us expand that service,” said MacIntosh.
Located in a hotel, the center was a temporary space for people who were actively seeking shelter but couldn’t find it. In 2020, they served 273 people, including 144 unhoused individuals, all of whom were offered housing options upon leaving.
CSF funding also helped them purchase laptops and tablets for shelter residents to use to access telehealth appointments, search for housing, and attend school virtually. When one student resident was called out by a teacher for attending class from bed, Loaves and Fishes created a classroom at the shelter where students could log in to class and do homework.
Moving Forward Together
MacIntosh looks back on 2020 and is proud of the creative solutions she and her staff devised to help so many people in the area get food, housing and other assistance. They even decided that some changes will stay for the long term. “Ninety-six percent of our pantry clients are seniors, so we found that curbside (pickup) really helped with mobility,” said MacIntosh. “It was easier for them to just stay put in their vehicle while we brought their food to them, so we have continued that process.”
She is also proud of how the whole team at Loaves and Fishes navigated through the challenges of 2020 together. While it was not easy, MacIntosh and her staff took mental health breaks during the day, set aside time to discuss their own fears and concerns, prioritized taking time off when needed, and found ways to have fun. “There have been a few tears, but there have been a lot of laughs,” said MacIntosh.
Despite the challenges they faced, the team at Loaves and Fishes was able to keep going because they believe in the services they provide and the people they provide them for. When one of the last families to experience the pandemic protocols left the shelter upon finding housing, it was bittersweet. “They cried as they were leaving because we had all become so close,” said MacIntosh. “Even though it was happy for them.”