On May 7, we were fortunate to interview staff of the Knox County Homeless Coalition (KCHC), including Executive Director Stephanie Primm, Chief Operating Officer Whitney Files, Director of Development Becca Gildred, Director of Social Services Molly Feeney, Director of The Landing Place Joseph Hufnagel, and Hospitality House Manager Jess Harriman.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the core mission of KCHC — to meet a range of basic human needs including shelter, food and connection — hasn’t changed, but the methods of delivering support have changed significantly, and need has spiked. Clients have needed to adjust to different forms of physically distanced connection. The increase in need at KCHC is both in the amount of shelter, support and supplies needed (food distribution has increased by about 150 percent) and the intensity of clients’ emotional distress: those who were already in tenuous living situations now have to deal with COVID-19 on top of everything else.

For people experiencing homelessness in the midcoast, the main form of shelter tends to be couch surfing among family and friends’ places. Due to COVID-19, many of these scenarios have become much more difficult, unsafe or unviable. KCHC representatives recalled a local man saying, “I can’t stay on my mom’s couch anymore because my mom is high risk.” In conjunction with the Maine Housing Authority, KCHC is now helping to house a significant number of clients in motel rooms.

Some of the work KCHC did right away was to switch to telehealth services and to make sure that clients have phones and calling cards.

They have found that while a great deal of their work is now done without face-to-face contact, bringing food and supply deliveries to clients, even at a distance, has enhanced and maintained connections — which may be just as important as the items that are in the bags they leave.

Are the kids alright?

The Landing Place, KCHC’s comprehensive youth program that features a drop-in center on Park Street in Rockland, has transformed. Each week, staff from The Landing Place (TLP) reach out via phone to the families and youth who are involved with TLP. Staff are currently making around 80 phone calls per week — and finding that texting sometimes gives better results in terms of connection. They are conducting supply drops (72 on the day before our interview, from Lincolnville to Cushing!) of food, clothing, art supplies, hygiene supplies, seed starter kits, customized notes to the youth, and even, last week, kits for the kids to make Mother’s Day cards for the mothers in their lives. (This made us, or Becca at least, tear up.) TLP is also hosting Virtual TLP during the hours when the physical space would otherwise be open. Additionally, Rockland-based artist and staff member Kim Bernard is creating “Super Skills” videos for youth, which are available on KCHC’s YouTube channel (“Make a Mask,” “Making Refrigerator Pickles,” “5-Minute Yoga,” and, coming soon, “Time Management”). Joseph mentioned the generosity of the community in donations of supplies and cash. Stephanie added that KCHC has always wanted to focus on the entire family to “break the cycle,” and that dropping off supplies allows them to connect with families in a new and powerful way, increasing the depth of relationships.

What about emotional health needs?

Molly pointed out that the trauma, stress and uncertainty of life during the pandemic are difficult. She acknowledged the vulnerability of client families who have worked really hard to get to where they are and are now thrown back into uncertainty. KCHC staff remind the family that the discomfort they are feeling is okay. She emphasized the importance of regular empathetic connection — as well as the mundane but vital troubleshooting around unemployment benefits and utility bills. And there’s fun stuff too: the other day, a staff member was on the phone with a young child who wanted a bicycle, and within minutes, the executive director had found a bicycle for him.

What is happening at the state level?

Stephanie observed that one potential benefit of a crisis is that it can open a door to change. In particular, she explained that more temporary shelters are opening up in Maine, and there has been a push to restructure and fast-forward supportive and affordable housing as well as generally expand the homelessness response system across the state.

She hopes that some of the emergency funding coming into the state can be directed towards these changes.

How might KCHC respond to the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude?

One of KCHC’s most veteran case managers pointed out to Molly that physically pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps simply doesn’t work — literally —and that maybe that impossibility is where the truest metaphor lies.

Molly continued that KCHC doesn’t adopt a combative attitude toward those who may not be immediately compassionate towards those who are struggling, but tries an approach of understanding and common ground, and that she believes that modeling patience and dignity and understanding rubs off on others. She also emphasized that no one can truly understand the experience of another person. Stephanie said she gets asked about “bootstraps” a lot, and that she regards such situations as an “opportunity for enlightenment and empathy establishment.” She, very respectfully, asks people who argue for bootstraps: “Well, okay, I want you to think about how far you would get on the minimum wage right now. You probably couldn’t fill up your car” or fill up a propane tank, at $1,000. And “if you had a complete absence of hope, abuse or generational poverty, being told you’re worthless, stupid and ugly, how would you put one foot in front of the other?”

Molly followed up by noting that KCHC’s clients do the bulk of the work: KCHC establishes a support network, but the clients are the ones pulling on the boots. Indeed, a substantial number of KCHC clients dream of becoming social workers, or otherwise volunteer to help others. Jess said that over the past week, two former clients have called in to ask what they can do to help, and at Hospitality House, the long-term shelter in Rockport, people pitch in to take care of each other by cooking and offereing child care and parenting advice. Peer support is vital. Becca Gildred said people in the KCHC community have been saying, “Those who quarantine together stick together for life.” (Of course, this is not advised for those experiencing abuse of any kind.)

What positive changes can you envision after this crisis?

Stephanie said, “I hope that people value basic human needs even more than they ever did.” She also said that even people with resources have found this time so challenging, and that she wants to see an increase in affordable housing and access to food, heat and transportation. Molly said she hopes people might understand one another a little better — or at least accept each other and embrace our commonality. Joseph mentioned the collaborative spirit and spirit of gratitude that have arisen to meet the challenges of the pandemic. Becca Gildred also shared that she thinks that a renewed sense of helping each other (both among KCHC shelter clients and in the broader community) might be a silver lining that could help people come out of this crisis stronger.