What do you do when 'social distancing' isn’t an option?

Large gatherings are banned, but the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission exists to put a roof over the heads of lots of people.
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

On most days there is a line of people waiting to get breakfast, lunch or dinner at the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission in downtown Kalamazoo.

The line usually moves pretty fast, with people sitting at any one of dozens of tables in the 448 N. Burdick St. mission’s large cafeteria.

Starting this week, the kitchen staff is deliberately looking to slow down the line and is asking more people to take their meals and leave the cafeteria.

“With the different directions that we’re getting from the CDC, we’re kind of conforming to some of that,” says Pastor Michael Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, referring to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We’re changing the way we do meals.”

“What we’ve done is we’ve taken a number of tables and chairs out of our cafeteria,” says Brown. “And we’re trying to limit the number of people in the cafeteria to 50. We’re allowing others who just want something to eat and who want to leave, a boxed meal. We’ll give them a boxed meal.”

“A lot of the stuff that they’re telling people to do, like wash your hands and wear gloves, those kinds of things, we do that all the time,” ” says Pastor Michael Brown, CEO of the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission.

To fight the spread of the coronavirus, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has banned gatherings of 50 or more people until 5 p.m. on April 5. That order applies to all events and assemblies, except health care facilities, grocery stores, pharmacies, private workplaces, mass transit facilities, and the Michigan Legislature.

Brown says he has been advised by the CDC that the Gospel Mission should also be excluded. But he is still working to comply with the governor’s order as a way to help fight the spread of the coronavirus.

The CDC recommends “social distancing.” That means “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.” According to the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, it also means no hugs, no handshakes and maintaining at least six feet of distance from anyone who is coughing, sneezing, feverish or showing other signs of illness.

That's a tough sell at the Gospel Mission, where people who make a friend or find a helping hand, tend to shake that hand, and hug that person. Brown, himself, admits to being a hugger.

And the Gospel Mission is designed to put a roof over the heads of a large group of people. Along with other shelters, nursing homes, retirement facilities, and group homes for the disabled – where large numbers of people have to be in close proximity -- the Gospel Mission is having to find practical solutions for “social distancing.”

More than 500 people visit the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission each day for meals. And just shy of 300 (two-thirds of whom are women and children) stay overnight in its dormitory facilities throughout the week.

Brown and his 74-person staff are stretching out the times that meals are served. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner have always been allotted 90 minutes each.

“We’re talking about increasing that to two hours to two and a half hours,” Brown said. “What it does is it stretches out the amount of time you have to get people through. When you can feed more people in one meal, you can get more people through in a short amount of time.”

Many local organizations are consulting with one another to find ways to protect the vulnerable populations of people they serve while limiting the spread of the coronavirus. Adam Castle is leading a weekly conference call of area organizations (at 10 a.m. on Mondays) that are part of the Kalamazoo County Response Consortium, a group of organizations, including the Gospel Mission, that came together after flooding affected many area property owners in early 2018. It looks to “collaborate and coordinate efficient, effective access to resources for vulnerable populations affected by emergency or disaster.” And it has a counterpart organization in Battle Creek.

Castle is the manager of the Community Resilience Program at Gryphon Place, the Kalamazoo-based crisis intervention, conflict resolution, and information referral organization. He says the Kalamazoo County and Battle Creek Response Consortiuums play primary roles in helping to coordinate the response of nonprofit agencies and help ensure their efforts “are aligned with and informed by the leadership of our government partners (emergency management and health departments).”
“We are also in a unique position to help identify and communicate needs as we interact with community members on a daily basis,” Castle says. “Each Response Consortium is holding weekly calls to not only share those identified needs, but also any needed support from partner agencies.”

Brown says tables at the Gospel Mission are smaller than they used to be, and they are arranged differently.

“We’ve got cafe tables now,” Brown says. “They’re small tables with four chairs around.”

But even if you have only one person or one family per table, Brown says, you can still end up without proper social distancing because people like to eat together.

“What we’ve done, in order to keep our numbers down around 50, we’ve taken a lot of the tables and chairs out (about half) so that we can limit the number of people having a place to sit down.”

With a laugh, he said, “But with our population, they move chairs. They are moving chairs because they want to sit with one another.”

Just shy of 300 (two-thirds of whom are women and children) stay overnight in the dormitory facilities at the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission.

He says his staff members try to manage that as best they can.

“We let them know what the rules are,” Brown says. “We tell them what the CDC says and all of that. But you can’t make people do things.”

To serve people who need safe, overnight shelter, the mission has two large dormitory areas, each for row upon row of bunk beds.

“The biggest thing that we’re doing with the people who are staying with us is the way that we have the bunks set up,” Brown says. “It’s head to foot. You don’t put two people’s heads together. If somebody sneezes, they’re sneezing on your feet rather than in your face. That’s the idea.”

He and his staff were to meet this week to discuss what they have been seeing since the COVID-19 pandemic has come to Michigan and to draft any new ideas to help them deal with it.

“We want to make sure people know what to look for when they’re going in,” he says. “We’re looking for people who have runny noses. People who have a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher. We want to try to get those people to a medical facility where they can be tested. If they are found to have a virus or something, we want them quarantined. If they have a home or a place to go to, we’re asking them to self-quarantine for at least 24 hours following any type of a fever that they’ve had.”

Through Tuesday, he says they have seen no one they suspect of having the virus. And he says that doesn’t surprise him.

“If our people were people who were traveling, getting on planes and doing a lot of long-distance traveling, then I’d be more concerned about it,” Brown says.

The staff at the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission has removed about half of the tables from its cafeteria.

Castle says one of the biggest assets at the disposal of nonprofits in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek is the United Way Disaster Relief Fund. Another in Kalamazoo is the Kalamazoo Community Foundation's Community Urgent Relief Fund.
“These agencies are working with each other and the consortiums to make emergency funding as accessible as possible to all 501(c)3 organizations who are experiencing an increase in expenses or significant loss of revenue during the COVID-19 response,” he says. 

In accordance with a request by the CDC to put off concerts and other large gatherings for at least eight weeks, the Gospel Mission is postponing a spring fundraiser featuring Rev. Tony Evans of Texas.

The April 16-17 event was to include a $25-per-guest gathering at Calvary Bible Church, a $250-per-plate dinner at the Kalamazoo Country Club, and a gathering of area ministers.

Evans is pastor of the 10,000-member Oak Cliff Bible Church in Dallas. He is also the chaplain for the Dallas Mavericks NBA team and the first African-American to publish his own Bible commentary.

“We still want to have the event,” Brown says. “We have to figure out a time past (beyond) that eight weeks now, that will fit his schedule.”

Brown does not expect that to be before early May.

“This event we were hoping to raise over $100,000,” he says.

What is the biggest challenge to serving people while trying to help stop the spread of the coronavirus?

“Outside of this particular event and this time that we’re in right now, generally our people could get up and go to a number of different places within the city,” Brown says. “Well, all of those places are closing down. They can’t go to the library. There are a lot of places they can’t go. So this is home for them.”

That is a major challenge when the governor has banned people from congregating in groups of more than 50.

“Where are they supposed to go?” Brown asks. “We’re just trying to manage our numbers as much as we can.”

He says the Gospel Mission may have to close its retail stores if the state ultimately orders all stores to close. The Gospel Mission has a thrift and consignment shop at 524 N. Burdick St., just north of the mission’s main location. It is called Rescued Treasures. It has another, called Simple Treasures, at 3721 S. Westnedge Ave. It sells furniture, clothing, housewares, and home accessories.

If they face a temporary closure, he says he hopes to reposition the eight to 10 part-time staffers who work at those locations and bring them back downtown.

Of recommendations from the state and the Centers for Disease Control, Brown says, “A lot of the stuff that they’re telling people to do, like wash your hands and wear gloves, those kinds of things, we do that all the time. People who are in the kitchen, they wear gloves all the time. My guys that work around the warehouse, they wear gloves all the time. We keep hand-sanitizer. We have hand-sanitizer stations around the mission.”

When all is said and done and the coronavirus crisis is past, Brown says he thinks people will have stronger relationships and ready access to hand-sanitizer.

“Overall, I think there’s going to be relationships built between agencies in the community,” Brown says. “Any time you have a crisis situation, people will tend to have a relationship with people they normally wouldn’t have a relationship with. And they learn the value of having those relationships. Those types of relationships usually last for a longer period of time, even when the crisis is over.”

He says he also thinks people will be smarter. 

“People’s awareness is heightened,” he says. “Even when the government says we can go back to feeding as normal, we’re still going to be aware of just how close we get to people. It’s just that heightened awareness.”

And he says, with a laugh, “I bet you people are going to be washing their hands for a long time. They’ll be carrying these little bottles of hand sanitizer.”

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.