Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno (second from left) tours the city’s Homeless Tent Triage Facility established to serve the city’s homeless population during the COVID-19 pandemic on April 6. (Photo courtesy: City of Springfield)

Determined to slow the spread of COVID-19, local leaders have mounted an all-out effort to keep residents safe by keeping them apart. When it comes to safeguarding the homeless, however, the usual playbook doesn’t work.

Social distancing protocols create a new and daunting challenge for the operators of often-crowded homeless shelters. Finding or creating suitable spaces to protect healthy people and enable those who have been exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine quickly rose to the top tier of issues confronting many municipal leaders in March.

According to 2019 data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 18,400 people experience homelessness in Massachusetts. Across the Commonwealth, municipalities are wading into yet another pool of uncharted waters as they brainstorm solutions and partner with community organizations to set up temporary shelters to house homeless populations, as well as first responders who have tested positive for COVID-19 or know they’ve been exposed.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency provides resources and guidance to local leaders regarding the sheltering of homeless people and first responders, but it is largely up to municipalities to hammer out solutions. As with everything related to COVID-19, there’s no time to lose.

Vulnerable population
“This is a very vulnerable population, and we have to make sure they are properly treated and make sure we can contain and isolate any situation that might arise,” Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno told WAMC Radio regarding his city’s Homeless Tent Triage Facility – three 12,000-square-foot heated tents (one for testing, one for isolating the sick, and a third for those in quarantine because they may have been exposed to COVID-19).

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse 75 percent of “reasonable and necessary costs” associated with operating “non-congregate medical sheltering” for homeless families and individuals and for first responders and health care workers who need to isolate or quarantine safely without exposing others in their households, according to MEMA.

“We need to ensure that people in every part of the state who are experiencing homelessness have access to immediate, safe and appropriate spaces for isolation, quarantine and social distancing,” said Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. “It has been heartening to see a number of municipalities from all across the state step up to create additional spaces for residents without homes.”

The coalition is encouraging cities and towns to secure motel rooms, college dorms, sports facilities and unoccupied housing units, and to partner with local nonprofits to provide these safe spaces during the pandemic.

Expanding capacity
Like Springfield, the city of Brockton is using heated tents to expand its accommodations. Calling the homeless “Brockton’s most vulnerable residents,” Mayor Robert Sullivan partnered with two nonprofits – Father Bill’s & MainSpring and the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center – to open the tents on April 6. They currently provide shelter to approximately 60 former guests of FBMS’ MainSpring House.

“By opening the tents, guests in both our shelter and in the tents now have the space needed to practice social distancing,” said FBMS Community Relations and Marketing Manager Patrick Ronan, adding that shelter guests who test positive for COVID-19 will be transported by the state to an off-site isolation center. The Baker-Polito administration has established two regional isolation and recovery sites, in Lexington and Pittsfield, with more on the way.

Valued partnerships
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer worked with the Diocese of Springfield, which granted the use of the former Saint Joseph’s Central High School for housing the homeless. ServiceNet is operating the temporary shelter, which will ensure adequate room for social distancing while providing guests with a warm place to sleep, daily meals, bathroom facilities for showering, and laundering resources.

In addition, Tyer said, “the city has entered into arrangements with two local hotels for the purpose of housing first responders who may need isolation or quarantine. We extended the availability of these rooms to first responders from other Berkshire communities that have mutual aid agreements with Pittsfield.

“As we continue to fight the spread of COVID-19, we are truly grateful for the support and collaboration of our community partners that has allowed for thoughtful problem-solving during these challenging times.”

Hotels and schools are also being pressed into shelter service elsewhere. Northampton has a new emergency shelter at its high school to accommodate guests from two ServiceNet shelters that lacked the space to meet social distancing criteria. Staffed by ServiceNet employees and about 60 volunteers, this “well shelter” had more than 50 guests last week.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said each guest gets screened for COVID-19 symptoms upon entering, and then twice daily. Anyone with symptoms is transferred by a partnering taxi service to a local hotel that serves as a quarantine and isolation shelter with a capacity of 50. (So far, only a handful have needed it.) A Northampton medical group provides support there, and a local pharmacy is delivering medicine.

“Northampton has a moral obligation to safeguard our city’s houseless population during this national emergency,” said Narkewicz, who announced on March 26 that he had contracted COVID-19 himself. “Fortunately we had a location, a strong partner in ServiceNet for expert staffing, Smith College and the Hampshire County House of Corrections for food, and willing volunteers ready to step up and create a shelter that is succeeding in preventing widespread infection among this vulnerable population.”

In Worcester, the city and its partners set up temporary homeless shelters at North High School, as well as Ascension and St. John’s Churches, all overseen by the Worcester nonprofit Net of Compassion. The city also established a shelter at Worcester Technical High School specifically for homeless people who test positive for COVID-19 or are quarantined and/or awaiting test results.

Collaborative efforts
Some cities have joined forces to help the homeless. Salem, Beverly and Lynn partnered to open a quarantine site at the Salem High School fieldhouse to serve up to 100 guests.

“Establishing a temporary quarantine location for the most vulnerable populations has been a shared priority of the mayors of the North Shore since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis,” Lynn Mayor Thomas McGee said. “Together, we will do everything we can to ensure that those who face housing insecurity will have a dignified place to shelter, as they are affected by the spread of COVID-19.”

While homelessness is often viewed as an urban issue, some Massachusetts towns also face challenges around housing homeless individuals during the COVID-19 emergency.

In Amherst, a church basement shelter houses 28 individuals, but the town was struggling to find space for isolation or quarantine until Hampshire College stepped forward to offer a dormitory for this purpose.

“Clearly, those experiencing homelessness are very susceptible to spreading the disease as they sleep in a congregate setting and share many things,” said Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

He said it’s much easier to find isolation or quarantine shelter space for first responders and hospital workers than it is to secure appropriate emergency shelters for those experiencing homelessness.

He said every local leader dreads the “nightmare scenario” where a COVID-19-positive patient “is discharged from the hospital and told to self-isolate at home, but they have no home to go to, and they wind up back on the street.”

Turley, of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, urged cities and towns to ask the Commonwealth for “a statewide, systemic response,” particularly for families with children and for unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness – groups that are largely left out of the plans developed so far to depopulate overcrowded congregate shelters.

“Without proactive interventions,” she said, “we will be leaving people experiencing homelessness in situations where this destructive virus can and will spread unabated.”

Written by Lisa Capone