Amid crisis, homeless shelters staying open in Northampton, Amherst

BY SCOTT MERZBACH
DAILY HAMPSHIRE GAZETTE
MARCH 14TH, 2020

Overnight seasonal shelters in Northampton and Amherst ensure that vulnerable populations have a place to stay during the coldest months of the year.

But with uncertainty surrounding the spread of COVID-19 and disruptions caused by the illness, both the Interfaith Shelter in Northampton and Craig’s Place in Amherst are taking steps to keep both guests and workers safe.

Amy Timmins, vice president of Community Relations for ServiceNet, which oversees the Northampton shelter on Center Street, said Thursday that the local shelters are not alone in getting ready for the pandemic.

On Thursday, a conference call was held with the Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel and the state epidemiologist for both shelters and local housing authorities.

“All shelters across the state are in the process of developing plans to manage the situation if someone tests positive for COVID-19,” Timmins said.

Support and help is being provided by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, Timmins said, which provides funding for the shelter’s overnight services to 20 people each night. There is room for an additional 20 guests in Northampton at the Grove Street Inn.

In Amherst, Craig’s Doors provides 28 beds. “We will keep it open as long as humanly possible,” said Craig’s Doors Executive Director Kevin Noonan.

He said hand sanitizer is provided at the registration table, staff is using bleach to wipe down doorknobs, handles and surfaces in other common areas, and there is increased vigilance, including taking the temperature of anyone who appears to be ill or running a fever.

The need for more staff may also increase with the University of Massachusetts moving to online learning, possibly for the rest of the spring semester.

Both seasonal overnight shelters are supposed to remain open through April 30.

Timmins said some of the conversations in Northampton have centered on whether people might be able to stay all day at the emergency shelter, rather than venturing out onto the street or elsewhere in the community.

“We’re in a situation we’ve never been in before,” Timmins said.

Noonan said additional hours would be nice, but that having shelter space in Amherst’s First Baptist Church makes that challenging.

During states of emergency, Timmins said, local health boards remain the primary point of contact for both the state and communities.

In addition to the shelter, Craig’s Doors also runs a weekly Wednesday morning breakfast at the Unitarian Meetinghouse in Amherst. The organization, which has already been asking to increase hand sanitization, is transitioning to carry-out meals instead of sit-down breakfasts. Noonan said guests will be able to enter a part of the church building where bathrooms and sinks are located before departing with their meals.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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