Homeless shelters being squeezed
BY PATRICK JOHNSON
MARCH 19TH, 2020
State virus mandates present new wrinkle
With Massachusetts advocating social distancing in response to COVID-19, and discouraging gatherings of 25 or more, homeless shelters report they are struggling to stay open while keeping their staff, volunteers and guests safe.
“This is unprecedented,” said Jay Sacchetti, senior vice president of Shelter and Housing, Vocational and Addition Services for ServiceNet, the Northampton-based social services firm.
“I’ve been in the business for a long time, and I’ve never experienced anything like this,” he said. “This is something different.”
ServiceNet operates a total of five emergency shelters and two family shelters in Northampton, Greenfield and Pittsfield. On an average day, the shelters take in around 180 people, he said.
“Basically we’re just trying to figure out how best to keep the doors open,” he said. “Every day presents a new wrinkle that we have to figure out.”
In recent days since Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency, shelters have been faced with the same pressures as businesses that cater to the public.
They are following Department of Public Health guidelines and have increased cleaning, emphasized repeated washing of hands, and taken steps to minimize risks for employees, volunteers and guests, he said.
They are also screening people seeking admission to shelters to determine if they have been exposed to coronavirus. People showing symptoms are directed to go to the emergency room.
“We’re cleaning the shelters a lot,” he said. “It’s difficult when you have 20-25 people coming in and out.”
The DPH and Baker have stressed the need for people to keep at least six feet from other people. That is easier said than done at an overnight shelter where beds are arranged inches apart in a limited space.
Springfield Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton said this week she has been in consultation with the two main shelters in the city, the Friends of the Homeless and the Springfield Rescue Mission.
The conversation had to do with mitigating the risk for people who are in the shelters.
She said she was assured by the two shelters in Springfield that each is trying to spread out the cots at least six feet.
“They’ve retooled their beds in order to try to accommodate the social distancing mandate,” she said.
She said she is looking to get more direction from Baker’s office about possible waivers for shelters.
“Right now, we’re working with our homeless providers in terms of their physical environment to try to set it up in a way that adheres to what we’re asking the public to do – the handwashing, social distancing, cover their mouths when coughing,” Caulton-Harris said. “It’s difficult with that population. We certainly understand that, but we are trying to adhere to the mandates as best we can.”
Ron Willoughby of the Springfield Rescue Mission, a 43-bed shelter on Mill Street in Springfield, said the plan is to remain open and serve the needs of the city’s homeless population. But it becomes more of a challenge daily.
“We will be taking every precaution recommended by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to maintain a healthy and safe environment for our staff, residents, guests, volunteers and donors,” he said in a prepared statement.
“These are challenging times for everyone as the Rescue Mission looks to our donors for support in meeting the needs for food, shelter and clothing to those we serve,” he said. “We appreciate every effort of our donors helping meet these needs. God will sustain us through these times.”
Sacchetti said ServiceNet, officials in Pittsfield, Greenfield and Northampton, and officials with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency are in discussions about alternative sites that would have more room and have greater opportunities for social isolation.
So far, it is just talking and nothing has been decided.
What is going to happen next is difficult to determine, he said.
There are so many variables that it is difficult to predict what will happen next, he said.
If the go-ahead is given for alternative sites, it will have to be resolved where it will be, what is the occupancy, and how do people get there.
“We’re just trying to put it all together.”
State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, has sent a letter to Baker asking his administration to immediately implement emergency shelters to mitigate the “negative consequences on some of our most vulnerable.” In her letter, Sabadosa pointed out that most shelters do not have the capacity for the number of people experiencing homelessness on any given day.
Yesterday, Sabadosa filed legislation with Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, that would allocate money for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to fund all seasonal shelters for families and individuals beyond their normal months of operation, equip them with bathrooms and showers, and install quarantine shelters.
The COVID-19 outbreak, Sabadosa said, has forced most public facilities with restrooms or showers to close, leaving those experiencing homelessness with few options. Sabadosa said she filed the legislation to help out smaller cities and towns that may not have the resources to support large populations of homeless.
“This epidemic is highlighting every crack in our system,” she told the News Service.
Sacchetti said another consideration for the shelters is for the many volunteer staff who pitch in on a daily basis.
Many of them are elderly, which puts them in the high-risk category for serious health effects related to COVID-19.
“It’s not a good idea to have them working with people when there are concerns about coronavirus,” he said.
The solution is to have the volunteers working somewhere offsite preparing meals for residents of the shelters. “They’ve been preparing the food and then leaving it at the front door, rather than them being inside the shelter.”
The Pine Street Inn, the largest shelter in Boston, has taken the same approach.
Only essential staff remain on duty. Everyone else is working remotely, and volunteers have been dismissed.
Guests seeking entry will be screened for symptoms, and those suspected of coronavirus exposure will be sheltered in an off-premises site. They are also stressing vigilance regarding hygiene, handwashing and covering coughs and sneezes.
They will also be storing a 30-day supply of food and cleaning supplies.
“This is an unprecedented health threat and we are greatly concerned about our community,” said Pine Street President and Executive Director Lyndia Downie. “We continue to put precautionary measures in place, working closely with public health partners as we take action to keep our staff, guests and tenants safe.”
Republican reporter Peter Goonan contributed to this report; and materials from State House News Service were used in this report.