Homeless in Williamson County offered aid during COVID-19 crisis

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Brian Wolz

Contributor vendor Brian Wolz sells papers in downtown Franklin on Thursday, April 9, 2020. He said his sales have been more than halved since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Though people continue to remain home in an effort to combat the spreading COVID-19 pandemic, efforts are underway to provide emergency shelter for Williamson County’s homeless population.

As of April 8, 30 homeless people are staying in 22 rooms at a local hotel, paid for through individual donations and aided by the Williamson County Homeless Alliance and the local emergency management agency. 

Pastor Kevin Riggs, founder of the WCHA and head pastor for Franklin Community Church, is leading the project. Though the funds for hotel rooms will be partially reimbursable, the church’s charitable arm has been able to underwrite the cost through $22,000 in donations from individuals and other churches in the community.

Dr. Vona Wilson, senior associate pastor and missions leader at Franklin First United Methodist, said the church’s major role with the WCHA has previously been as a physical shelter.

“One of the things we love is being able to use our facility to house our homeless,” she said. “In this case, the safest thing for our homeless friends is to be at the hotel.” 

Riggs said the emergency hotel housing began at the end of March and will continue as long as local stay-at-home orders are in place, currently through April 14. 

In addition to housing, which has been offered at a discounted rate by Athena Hospitality Group, several local restaurants have donated a daily hot meal to those at the hotel.

Those restaurants include Menu Maker Catering, the Daily Dish, Franklin Chop House, Pueblo Real, Buca di Beppo, Americana Taphouse, Big Shakes Hot Chicken and Fish, and Sonic.

Understanding the toll COVID-19 has taken on the hospitality industry, the alliance is now paying and tipping those restaurants.

Riggs said he speaks with those receiving aid to ensure they live in Williamson County. Many, he said, have lived in the area their entire lives. 

“There’s more homeless people out there [who may need housing],” he said, “but they need to contact me.”

Easter Sunday will be the 100th night of providing overnight emergency shelter to the local homeless community since launching at FUMC’s Mack Hatcher and Franklin Road campus this past August. The shelter is open for overnight stays on days when the temperature reaches above 90 degrees or dips below 32 degrees.

“We’re committed to being a part of the homeless solution, and we would like to be a part of a permanent shelter,” Wilson said of the church’s role. “The temporary shelter since August has worked very well, but if we had a permanent shelter, we wouldn’t be in a hotel.” 

“Watching over our most vulnerable citizens is what we all have to do,” Wilson said.

“The majority of the homeless here have been sleeping in their vehicles,” Riggs said, noting many people are unaware of a group he calls the “working poor, or working homeless.”

Those who have not lost jobs from the pandemic leave for work each day, positions which range from healthcare assistants to delivery drivers to newspaper vendors. 

Some vendors for The Contributor, a 501©(3) publication purchased and distributed by those climbing out of homelessness, are still out on the streets of Franklin and Nashville. 

At the corner of South Margin Street and 3rd Avenue South, longtime vendor Brian Wolz was still trying to sell the paper on Thursday. Though Wolz doesn’t live in Franklin and currently rents a home, he has been selling papers in the downtown area for 10 years. 

Wolz and his wife are among those whose finances have been negatively impacted by the virus. His wife lost her job cleaning homes for the elderly three weeks ago, and Wolz estimates his sales have dropped 60% since COVID-19 began severely impacting the region. Last month, he had $20 left after paying rent. He is thankful for his birthday in March, which means he is now eligible to begin drawing income from Social Security. 

Wolz is concerned about getting sick, but said he needs to keep working to support his wife and feed their three pit bulls. He doesn’t wear gloves because of his psoriasis, but he has been wiping himself down each hour and changing out of his clothes and shoes before he goes into his house to avoid any possible contamination. 

“I’m about out of wet wipes,” he said. “Right now, it’s hard.”

Wolz misses hugging his regulars and is concerned about the stress the virus spread has put on everyone. But, on the cloudless day, he continued waving to drivers passing by. 

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