HOW DO YOU ‘STAY AT HOME’ WHEN YOU HAVE NO HOME?
BY GRETA JOOCHEM
DAILY HAMPSHIRE GAZETTE
MONDAY, MARCH 30TH, 2020
NORTHAMPTON — Paul Chandler sleeps outside most nights and often spends time at Forbes Library. Since the library closed on March 16 due to COVID-19 concerns, Chandler has had a hard time. He misses the space — and the staff. “It’s my social life — they are the most compassionate people on the planet,” he said.
Earlier this month, Gov. Charlie Baker ordered all nonessential businesses to close and issued an advisory for state residents “to stay home and limit all unnecessary activities.”
But for those without a home, that is not an easy order to follow.
Like Chandler, Christian Helman used to spend time at the library, he said, while sitting outside Thornes Marketplace. “Before the coronavirus, a lot of us hung out at Haymarket,” he said, referencing the Main Street cafe. Now, he said, that’s not possible.
Another effect of downtown shutdowns: It’s harder for those experiencing homelessness to charge their phones and find bathrooms, said a man named Tree, who declined to give his last name, while sitting on the steps of City Hall with his dog, Annie. Northampton recently put port-a-potties in the parking lot behind Pulaski Park after many public buildings closed, but finding a restroom is still a problem for many people experiencing homelessness.
“It’s just different because you can’t find one place to go to the bathroom,” said Christina Beam, who goes by Chrissy, late Friday night at Craig’s Place, a shelter in Amherst. Her fiance, Gary Bell, said Craig’s Place is “the best shelter I’ve ever been to.” They are not homeless, Bell said, but “currently seeking residence … We’re trying to put our lives back together.”
The lack of places to sit, rest and stay warm takes a physical toll. Kammille Oborne, a physician assistant volunteering at Craig’s Place, has been seeing people with health issues related to constant standing. “Since there are so few not-freezing cold spaces for people to sit down, they are literally standing from 7 or 8 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night,” she said. Without reliable places to go to the bathroom, she’s seeing some people limit their fluid intake, which causes other problems. “Now we have severe problems with bowels,” she said, “and it’s just really hard.”
Several people experiencing homelessness who spoke to the Gazette mentioned being poorly treated by others. People are typically aloof or rude anyway, said Maxiums Victoria Jayne, but now, “it’s definitely exponentially worse.”
“It’s like they are using it as a pass to be worse,” Jayne, 30, said. “It’s really hard out here. We’re already treated badly enough.”
Some homeless people have felt shunned, said Gerry Weiss, president of the board of directors of Craig’s Doors, the organization that runs Craig’s Place.
“It’s unfortunate and, really, it’s unnecessary,” he said.
Every night at Craig’s Place, Oborne screens guests by taking their temperatures and talking to each individual.
“She checks them very thoroughly — to the extent that you can in a hallway,” said Kevin Noonan, the director of Craig’s Doors. “It’s been a godsend to have her.” He added that they are looking for more volunteer medical providers in the evenings so that Oborne can take time off.
“I have not seen anybody that I was truly concerned had COVID,” Oborne said on Friday.
“I really feel that in many ways this population is safer,” she added. “This is a population that people have kept six feet away from forever.” She’s concerned about the health of the people she sees at the shelter, as “many of them are really sick” and may be more vulnerable to contracting the virus.
If someone does test positive, the shelter won’t be able to continue at its current location, Noonan said Friday. What would happen is unclear, and he said he has been in contact with the town.
“We’re working to finalize our contingency plans,” Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said Monday, adding that the town is in contact with Craig’s Doors. “We’ve been working on those plans for the last number of days. We have things in place. At this time, I can’t go into great detail.”
The Amherst shelter has seen an uptick in the number of people seeking beds, Noonan said. The number of women has roughly doubled. Noonan suspects the increase is because some people had temporary living arrangements, such as a couch to sleep on, that are no longer available because people are practicing social distancing.
The Amherst shelter needs personal protective equipment, including gloves, and supplies such as hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes. “We don’t even have masks,” Noonan said. “It’s just up to the individual staff members if they can find it somewhere.”
Shelter cots have been rearranged so that there are six feet between everyone’s heads, and cleaning happens regularly, Noonan said.
Still, “There’s not much space for social distancing,” said William Stella, who has been staying at the shelter over the winter and early spring. He worries that if one person were to get the virus, it would spread quickly. “I have a mask and everything,” he said. “I sleep with my covers over my face.”
Others were not worried. “I have no fear,” said JD Edwards while at Craig’s Place on Friday evening. “I’ve been through so much in the last 12 years …. I’m not afraid of it.”
In Northampton, the city announced Friday that it’s looking for volunteers for a 70-cot shelter at Northampton High School. “The goal is to close our two local shelters and transition the healthy to a new, larger shelter at NHS,” Mayor David Narkewicz, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, said in a text Monday. The opening day and time is not yet determined, and the city is still working out final logistics, he said.
ServiceNet will be staffing the shelter, said Amy Timmins, vice president of community relations for the organization, which oversees two Northampton shelters, the Grove Street Inn and the Interfaith Shelter.
“The staff and the guests at the shelter are all following the recommended guidelines from the Department of Public Health regarding hand washing, hand sanitizing, covering coughs and continual cleaning of the shelters,” she said.
Like Craig’s Place, the Northampton shelters screen guests. “We are monitoring to see if they exhibit any symptoms, such as fever,” she said. “If someone does have symptoms we will give them a mask and isolate them as best we can while we contact health services for the homeless.”