By: Danny McArthur
TUPELO • At the beginning of 2020, the Tupelo/Lee Hunger Coalition and Tupelo Homeless Task Force were seeing some of their lowest rates of food insecurity and homelessness they’ve seen in years. Then COVID-19 added on new stresses.
As part of Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week, area agencies such as Mississippi United to End Homelessness (MUTEH), United Way of Northeast Mississippi, the Tupelo/Lee Hunger Coalition and the Mississippi Balance of State Continuum of Care discussed current problems with food insecurity and homelessness and current solutions during a Hunger and Homeless webinar Tuesday morning.
In a five year period, Lee County had managed to steadily decrease from a 19.2% food insecurity rate in 2014 to a 15.7% food insecurity rate in 2018, according to Tupelo Hunger Coalition executive director Jason Martin. However, for 2020, the projected rate is 20.8%, the highest in recent years.
“When COVID hit, it changed everything in a matter of moments, and we essentially lost five or six years of progress in just a short time,” Martin said.
Nationwide, the food insecurity rate has risen over 20%, with some places experiencing long food lines. Martin said they are currently concerned about a possible lack of food availability in early 2021 due to panic buying. He encourages people to be an advocate and encourages others to only purchase what they need.
“My fear and concern is that people are going to start panicking and panic-buy again, and when that happens, it creates a ripple effect and will directly impact the people that we’re trying to help the most,” Martin said.
Homelessness has also risen, increasing from 49 homeless individuals in January to between 60 and 65 right now. This is due to a combination of factors, including the pandemic, the closure of other shelters causing people to travel to Tupelo seeking shelter, and Tupelo being a bus stop area for transient homeless individuals. MUTEH also navigated barriers as some landlords paused leasing and utility companies temporarily stopped opening new accounts.
“Our housing process throughout that time period was very difficult because it took longer than it necessarily would have if it hadn’t been a pandemic,” said Tupelo Homeless Task Force chair Hannah Maharrey.
Despite challenges, MUTEH has been able to house over 30 individuals in the Lee County area since March, and continue using COVID-19 strategies and best practices to continue targeted outreach. In October, they were able to house seven people in Tupelo, and are currently working with their Rental Assistance for Mississippians (RAMP) program to prevent homelessness due to COVID-19, said MUTEH Northeast Mississippi coordinator Sara Ekiss during the Thursday Tupelo Homeless Task Force meeting.
“Even through the pandemic, even though the quarantine, we’ve been able to move individuals off the street and into housing through MUTEH’s rapid rehousing program,” Ekiss said.
They have also been able to utilize CARES Act funding to house people who are street homeless due to COVID-19. Because the funding requires proof of a negative impact because of COVID-19 specifically, it has so far only applied to a small number of people, Ekiss said. There are currently five people MUTEH is working with who either had COVID-19, lost their job due to COVID-19, or have underlying health conditions. Those people are housed in a hotel until they can be moved into housing.
To address food insecurity in Lee County, the Hunger Coalition works with three main groups: food pantries, hot meal services and weekend backpack programs. The backpack programs were largely created to address food insecurity among children and serve approximately 1,000 students in Lee County. Meals on Wheels of Lee County, which provides hot meals five days a week to elders, received additional funding to begin helping more people on their waiting list beginning in January 2021.
Amid the pandemic, mobile food pantries have become a part of addressing the food need. A typical version of that is a truck from the food bank brings enough food for hundreds of families. A local organization, such as an Anchor Church in Verona, acts as the hub and they track the paperwork, do the intake, provide the volunteers and regularly have a food distribution.
“This is a relatively new concept, and you saw glimpses of that this summer of what that looks like,” Martin said.