Homeless shelters coping with public health fears


GREENFIELD — Places of public congregation have been urged to take precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic, and homeless shelters are no exception.

Amy Timmins, vice president of community relations at ServiceNet, which operates seven shelters in Greenfield, Northampton and Pittsfield, said the organization is following all recommended guidelines set by the state Department of Public Health. These precautions include emphasis of hand washing and hand sanitizing, covering coughs and the continuous cleaning of surfaces. Timmins said staff members have found that guests are eager to comply with all requirements and to help with cleaning.

“This is the place where they are staying and they want to keep it safe for themselves and others,” she said. “They’re being remarkably resilient and helpful, and asking what they can do.”

Greenfield’s Wells Street shelter, open year-round, and the warming center at Chapman Street’s Salvation Army, open Nov. 1 through April, each have a 20-person capacity, Timmins said. There’s also the Greenfield Family Inn, a family shelter run by ServiceNet.

Especially when shelter guests are sleeping on bunks, Timmins acknowledged that it’s typically not possible to practice the recommended social distancing guidelines, which involve staying at least 6 feet away from anyone else. At the warming center, where people either sit up in chairs or lay down on the floor, guests can try to keep their distance as much as possible, but there are still up to 20 people in the shared space.

“That said, given the choice of staying overnight inside the shelter or warming center — where guests also receive dinner and breakfast, and have access to showers — or being out on the street 24/7, the health and safety benefits of the shelter still outweigh the risks,” Timmins said.

Additionally, staffers are monitoring anyone who enters a facility to determine if they exhibit any symptom of COVID-19.

“If they are, we ask them to go to their nearest hospital to be further screened,” Timmins said.

She said ServiceNet, which bills itself as a network of mental health and human services for people and families throughout Western Massachusetts and Worcester County, is working with the Greenfield, Northampton and Pittsfield health departments to try to find alternate sites for homeless people who display COVID-19 symptoms.

Reach Domenic Poli at: [email protected] or
413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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