Moral quandary: How to help people without putting them at risk

Corey Hayes/Courtesy of New York City Relief
New York City Relief, an outreach organization serving the homeless community in the New York City area, serves meals, while taking precautions to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, in Chelsea Park in New York City on March 18, 2020.

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It was a painful moment Friday when Fatime Ba, a volunteer at CityMeals on Wheels, was told she had to forgo her weekly visit with the 96-year-old woman with whom she’s become close. They usually spend at least two hours visiting every Friday.

It’s become one of the ironies of the COVID-19 crisis. In times of national disaster, residents instinctively respond by helping out in overwhelming numbers. People often long to gather, find solidarity and solace in numbers, and a willingness to help those in need.

Why We Wrote This

What if your job means serving the most vulnerable? Groups who care for homeless and elderly people are grappling with how to still help during a pandemic.

As the global crisis deepens, social service agencies are facing growing uncertainty, and many programs may need to be curtailed as volunteers and staff members stay home to protect not just themselves, but the vulnerable populations they serve.

CityMeals on Wheels, which delivers meals to 18,000 of New York’s elderly shut-ins, has had to adjust to fewer volunteers and stricter protocols, says executive director Beth Shapiro.

“Friendly visits” are being done via telephone. In addition to hot meals, the service is including nonperishable and shelf stable food. Volunteers who deliver meals follow CDC protocols. “The flip side of this crisis is that New York is this huge city with very often disconnected people, but during times of emergency, it brings us together,” Ms. Shapiro says.

Like many who serve the homeless, Josiah Haken and the staff at New York City Relief had to scramble last week as they tried to readjust to a world that had suddenly changed.

The faith-based agency relies on its volunteers, Mr. Haken says. For decades the organization has been able to house cadres of volunteer workers from around the country. Most devote a full week to service, staying in the organization’s facility in New Jersey and helping out as the agency’s fleet of relief buses deliver hot soup, socks, and counseling services to five sites throughout New York City.

Last week, their group of volunteers, mostly students from Michigan, cut short their service. And amid the countless disrupted routines of American life, those scheduled to come over the next month have understandably canceled, he says. Most local volunteers, too, are following government guidelines and staying home.

Why We Wrote This

What if your job means serving the most vulnerable? Groups who care for homeless and elderly people are grappling with how to still help during a pandemic.

[Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.]

“So we just started to think about what it means for us to go forward,” says Mr. Haken, the vice president of outreach at New York City Relief, which has a paid staff of about 20 people in addition to the volunteers. “You know, how do we follow in the direction of our faith and what our faith leads us to do? And so at the same time, we realized that we need to be smart and wise and careful.”

It’s become one of the ironies of the COVID-19 crisis. In times of national crisis and disaster, residents instinctively respond by helping out in overwhelming numbers. Communities respond to the fears and anxieties surrounding life’s disruptions, people often long to gather, find solidarity and solace in numbers, and a willingness to help those in need.

But now, instead of the laying on of hands, there is the duty to wash hands and stay six feet away. Instead of gathering to comfort and console, the way to help most is to “socially distance,” even during a particularly vulnerable time in our common lives together.

Yet given how closely the relief agency works with people living on the streets, the pandemic is now challenging their very mission, presenting the staff with moral and logistical dilemmas that are, at once, both deeply personal and deeply profound. 

“The people who are often forgotten in these kinds of crises are the people who are at the bottom of the economic ladder – people who are homeless are food insecure,” says Mr. Haken. “Yet you have people in the street who are already more likely and prone to have compromised immune systems,” he says. “So what does it mean for us to consider that factor? It’s a lot.”

So far, being smart and wise and careful includes following CDC guidelines, and readjusting their service routines. Workers and remaining volunteers now wear gloves at all times, not just when they serve food, and change them every 15 minutes. 

They’ve always washed hands and used hand sanitizer, but now they’re providing stations for their clients to clean their hands. As the lines form for their services, they encourage them to maintain a six feet space between them. 

“We’re trying to find that middle ground to achieve our ultimate mission, which is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide the poor wanderer with shelter,” says Mr. Haken, noting how his agency roots its mission in the mandates of Isaiah. 

Still, as the global crisis deepens, congregations and social service agencies around the country are facing growing uncertainty, and many programs may need to be curtailed as volunteers and staff members stay home to protect not just themselves, but the vulnerable populations they serve.

Corey Hayes/Courtesy of New York City Relief
Josiah Haken, vice president of outreach operations for New York City Relief, takes the temperature of a guest as the organization serves meals to homeless people, while taking precautions to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, in Chelsea Park in New York City on March 18, 2020.

Physically distancing, socially communicating

At the New York Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan, volunteers and staff have had to readjust as well in a time of social distancing. 

It’s a term that Elinore Kaplan, a long-time volunteer at the historic humanist congregation, just across the street from Central Park, finds frustrating. 

“We may be physically distancing, but we are socially communicating,” says Ms. Kaplan, co-chair of the Society’s communications committee. “I think in every sense, our being a community, our being an ethical family and extended family, we can continue to be present with each other in a variety of ways.”

Most of the society’s staff had already been working from home, but Ms. Kaplan felt a deep need to be present with the few staff members that came in that day, in an office following CDC protocols. As co-chair of the communication’s committee, she’s helping to brainstorm how the society can move forward with its services and other outreach missions.

Its Sunday “platform,” the term they use for their non-theistic but spiritually centered services, has been canceled for the foreseeable future, and committee meetings have moved online or to conference calls. 

“We’ve spent the last three days doing nothing but saying, how do we calm people’s fears?” says Liz Singer, president of the Society for Ethical Culture’s board of trustees. “How do we let them know we’re here? How do we let them know that if they feel the need to come in, how can they be able to reach out and to talk to us?”

The society also maintains a women’s homeless shelter in the basement of their building, a partnership with The Olivieri Center in New York. It also houses a televisiting program that connects families with loved ones being held in New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex, which houses those awaiting trial and who cannot afford bond.

“We’ve got a lot of people concerned with these outreach programs, asking, ‘Are people getting food? Are we going to be able to continue?’ ” Ms. Singer says.

“This is becoming real now”

It was a painful moment last Friday when Fatime Ba, a volunteer in the “friendly visiting” program at CityMeals on Wheels, was told she had to forgo her weekly visit with the 96-year-old woman with whom she’s become close, and usually spends at least two hours visiting every Friday. 

“It took me a minute to realize, wait a minute, this is becoming real now,” Ms. Ba says. “When I call her, you could hear that disappointment in her voice. And she kinda ended up worried, she’s worried, because I don’t know what we’re going to do. But again, it has to be done, because we need to protect ourselves from whatever is happening right now.”

The mission of CityMeals on Wheels, which delivers tens of thousands of meals to 18,000 of New York’s elderly shut ins, has also had to adjust to fewer volunteers and stricter protocols for its services, says executive director Beth Shapiro. 

“Many of our meal recipients are already socially distanced,” she says. “They’re isolated, they’re left alone, so even a quick meal coming to the door is connectivity for them.” 

The “friendly visits” program, however, is now being done via the telephone. And in addition to the hot meals the agency delivers, the service is now including nonperishable and shelf stable food. Volunteers who deliver these meals follow CDC protocols, sanitizing their hands and maintaining a six foot distance from their clients during deliveries, she says.

Despite seeing fewer volunteers, Ms. Shapiro is witnessing a renewed commitment from those they still rely upon. “The flip side of this crisis is that New York is this huge city with very often disconnected people, but during times of emergency, it brings us together. And I would say, quite frankly, the city feels like a small town in times like these.” 

Despite her disappointment at not being able to visit her friend, Ms. Ba is remaining committed to do what she can.

 “I started as a volunteer because, when I came in America 20 something years ago, I was received with open arms,” says Ms. Ba, an immigrant from Senegal who now works as a social worker. 

“So to me, it’s like giving back to the community,” she continues. “I have found a way to say thank you, thank you for everything that you’ve done for me, for everything that I have now. I have to go back into the community and show my appreciation.”

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