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As Bitter Cold Settles In, COVID-19 Complicating Efforts To Help Homeless

FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) - As dangerously cold weather settles in across North Texas, efforts to protect the homeless are complicated this year by COVID-19.

"How cold it's going to be... [we] wanted to do more than just give them clothing," says Chris Branigan, Lead Pastor at Renovation Community Church in southwest Fort Worth. Still, he says the small church is following CDC guidelines -- screening potential guests and requiring masks even overnight.

"It is a concern," admits Branigan. "I have lot of health problems myself. But what's more concerning right now with several days being below freezing as a high, is that people on the streets are honestly in the next few days more at risk of dying from exposure than dying from Covid -- but it is a concern, so we are going to do our best to mitigate that."

Shelters also can't accommodate all who need help. His is one of several churches in the area looking to fill some of the gaps.

"We are terrified that some of our homeless friends are going to die," says Wayne Walker, Pastor and Exec. Director at Our Calling, which serves the unsheltered on the outskirts of downtown Dallas.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the philanthropy on the streets where people just pile up blankets and give people resources in a camp, it enables them to stay in a life-threatening scenario," explains Walker. "We would much rather have them be in a shelter on a pathway to long-term housing, and that's what we offer here every day."

Today, Our Calling continued to offer rapid COVID-19 testing through a partnership with the state, allowing clients who are negative access to shelters.

"I'm like an old Ford pickup truck," joked Callen Renard, "I freeze real easy. I hate the cold weather, I really do." Renard shared that he'd been managing to survive on the streets for the past two years and appreciated the help Our Calling was providing to help him get his life back.

Advocates know that the bitter cold is a serious concern. But it is also an opportunity.

"When someone says 'I'm fine, I'm good... just throw me a few more blankets, I'll be good outside', today is an opportunity to really push that conversation because they won't be okay," says Walker.

The City of Dallas amended an ordinance that prevented churches from serving as emergency shelters. But still excludes those in the downtown area -- including Our Calling. If the nonprofit provides overnight shelter, they could be fined. Local leaders say it is a risk they're willing to take.

"There's a lot better solutions than playing politics-- especially when life and death are at play," says Walker. "It would be much more cost effective and more humane to use the money to rent hotel rooms to keep someone safe."

Walker is urging those wanting to help the homeless to consider volunteering or chipping in to cover the additional costs associated with keeping their facility open later or for hotel rooms, saying it could cost more than $15,000 a day to provide services during the bitter cold -- and says there are so many more needing help.

"I can tell you that we are seeing more people than we've ever seen before. This time last year, we were meeting 20-30 new people a week, now we're meeting 150 a week. It's Covid, it's poverty, it's the economy, all the unemployment. People being evicted every day that are leading people to the streets. A family will pull up and we think they're here to volunteer, and they say those terrifying words-- we are homeless [and] don't have anywhere to go."

He says the Our Calling team is focused every day on helping get them back on their feet.

"If you can, try not to ever be homeless," says Renard, his voice starting to quiver with emotion, "because it is a rough, rough life...very rough."


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