SAN ANTONIO — Every weekday, the line of people desperate for help stretches down the block and around the corner from the Catholic Worker House on Nolan Street in east San Antonio.
People who are homeless and hungry started showing up in record numbers recently when virtually every other shelter in town reduced their services or temporarily ceased operations because of coronavirus challenges.
House manager Chris Plauche said the number of meals they were serving to the unsheltered skyrocketed.
“Ordinarily we would serve about 125 meals, but on our record day, we served 366 meals in one day, and that was to 238 different people,” Plauche said.
The soft-spoken servant, who admits she pays little attention to news events of the day, said she felt called to act when she realized the impact that coronavirus was having on outreach efforts by the local faith community.
“I thought we should stay open and be the one place, and be stationary and do the same thing we always do so people could count on us,” Plauche said.
She said the word on the street spread quickly, causing long lines to form.
Plauche said “Every day we are seeing lots of new faces and they are like deer in the headlights. They are the newly homeless and those who have just been released from the justice system and they don’t know where to go.”
Plauche, who had a long, successful career as a medical doctor before she changed her focus, said she is putting her medical skills to good use, carefully monitoring every single guest who comes through the serving line.
She said after reading about recent studies showing oxygen levels may offer a more accurate picture of a person’s lung function and health, they started using a pulse oximeter on every person who showed up for help.
Plauche said when they identified people who might need medical help, they made sure their guests were tested for the coronavirus.
"So far they have all been negative, which is wonderful," Plauche said.
But managing a large crowd of people who are living on the edge is not an easy task, and some neighbors near the center have expressed unease with the sudden rush of vulnerable strangers.
One man who lives nearby did not want to comment on the record because he said past complaints have brought threats of violence and vandalism.
“I’m angry and I’m tired. The city has gaslighted the neighbors time and again and there’s always a promise, but never a solution,” the neighbor said.
The man, who said he called police six times one recent morning, said he and others are tired of seeing people leave the property and cause problems.
“Today we had one person rummaging through our flower beds, a person who is a known trouble maker, and another person was having a picnic on our walkway,” the neighbor said.
Plauche said they are trying their best to manage the onslaught. They have posted signs on neighboring properties to remind people to follow the law. Staff members work the serving line to remind guests to keep their distance.
Plauche said they have distributed hundreds of masks, and will need hundreds more as the effort to flatten the curve of the virus continues.
“When you’re living on the streets it’s very difficult to keep a mask. They disappear. They get very soiled,” Plauche said, adding “We're hitting a time where they need a second mask and we don't have the ability to do that.”
Still, Plauche said, as challenging as it has been, it is also a time of tremendous support.
“This is unbelievable. Support is coming from so many places. It's people we don't know. They're masked up and they stop and I don't recognize them and some say we're just ordinary people who want to help,” Plauche said.
Plauche said she has been amazed by the number of neighbors who live close by who have pitched in with their time, talents and treasure.
“We had one lady we’d never seen before, she helped with lunch and she wrote us a check,” Plauche said.
Plauche said numerous people have repeated the same refrain. “They say ‘We pass by every morning and we didn't know who you were but we want to help’ and we didn't know we had such support from this very neighborhood,” Plauche said. “We call them our ordinary people who are our extraordinary angels.”
Plauche said another unexpected positive development has been the formation of a new network of people who want to help those on the streets.
“What this has done has caused us to work together. It's fostering collaboration and cooperation among the various ministries in the city, whereas before, we operated as silos,” Plauche said.
Plauche said because their needs are changing so rapidly, it is hard to say what they need most at any given time.
Beyond masks, she said, they need supplies for healthy meals.
“Fruit. Cereal. Milk. The healthier things, is what I wish a fairy godmother would drop on us, but we have been so blessed in the last few weeks, and people have responded so fast to our needs and we really appreciate that,” Plauche said.