BOSTON (State House News Service) — A slow trickle of people on Wednesday morning made their way out of the St. Francis House, a Boston shelter providing housing to adults experiencing homelessness and poverty.
Opening themselves up to the elements, the few individuals who started to walk on Tremont Street represent some of the thousands experiencing homelessness in the state while COVID-19 continues to spread across the nation. Advocates, legislators, and shelter operators are concerned that the virus, should it spread among homeless populations, could inflict serious damage and accelerate the larger rate of spread.
In Massachusetts, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases jumped to 218 on Tuesday, an increase of 21 from Monday, according to the Department of Public Health. Over 179,112 cases have been reported worldwide as of Tuesday with 7,426 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
"We're concerned at every level of government, wanting to make sure that people experiencing homelessness, and their unique needs, become a focal point," Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless Associate Director Kelly Turley said in an interview. "We know that just because there hasn't been a lot of public talking, we know that some of the conversations are happening at the state level."
Ron Willoughby runs Springfield Rescue Mission, a 43-bed emergency shelter in downtown Springfield that also serves over 450,000 meals a year. He said he has directed staff to follow state suggestions and disinfect everything from tables to doorknobs.
Willoughby said he is looking for more information from the governor and mayor of Springfield on how they would tend to people experiencing homelessness. Supplies such as thermometers and hand sanitizer might run out of stock if the outbreak worsens, he said.
"I was listening to the messages by the mayor and also the governor and I didn't hear anything about the homeless population being cared for," he told the News Service Tuesday. "If they do not they are missing a grand point."
Turley said most shelters are going to need an infusion of funds and support to take the measures that are needed to be able to create distance between people. Additionally, she said, proposals such as keeping open seasonal shelters open and providing easy access to hygiene would benefit the homeless population.
"People are in very tight quarters already and there's not an opportunity for social distancing," she said.
The state Department of Housing and Community Development is working with agencies to identify additional capacity to support homeless individuals and families who may need quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19.
DHCD hosted several calls in an attempt to address the outbreak as it relates to individuals experiencing homelessness. The department hosted a March 12 call between Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, the state's epidemiologist, and local shelters and housing authorities. A second phone call occurred on Tuesday for family and individual shelters.
While Massachusetts does not have the highest population of people experiencing homelessness in the nation, it does clock in at 18,471, according to a U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development report released in January 2020. The report, compiled on a single night in January 2019, found that 567,715 people in the United States were experiencing homelessness. Just under two-thirds of those people were staying in sheltered locations while over a third were found in unsheltered locations.
Turley said Massachusetts' number does not include people living in double-up scenarios and is limited in counting people staying in places like cars and campgrounds.
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh on Tuesday night said the city will continue to serve those experiencing homelessness despite the unique challenges COVID-19 presents.
"Bostonians are coming together in thousands of ways to take care of our most vulnerable neighbors," he said in a televised address. "City agencies and nonprofits who serve homeless are implementing plans to prevent the virus from spreading in shelters. And we have identified safe sites where we can test and treat people who have the symptoms."
In the western part of the state, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield) said a shelter in her city exemplifies the issues surrounding people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 outbreak. The shelter, which is run by a non-profit and receives state funding, is overcrowded as officials urge people to practice social distancing and employees attempt to keep the facility clean.
Farley-Bouvier said it is in the best interest of the public to address the homeless population not only for their wellbeing but for the public's general health.
"In this crisis, I believe it's a time bomb. So you have people with a lot of health needs, a lot of underlying health conditions, living in very close quarters," she said in an interview. "I just think it's inevitable that it's going to spread throughout that population, who will then get very ill because they have all those high-risk factors and then that group will swamp the hospital."
When a state of emergency is declared the governor gains broad authority including the potential to take over a building as necessary. Farley-Bouvier said that might be one solution for local populations.
"I mean, in Berkshire County, we need a Berkshire solution. We need help from the state to fund it, but we need a solution that's going to work for Berkshire County and each community, they got to aggressively find a solution to that."
While governmental departments and agencies attempt to help those already experiencing homelessness, over 35 legislators signed onto a bill that would place a hold on evictions and foreclosures during the state of emergency. Advocates say the bill protects low-income families who might be at risk of homelessness.
Turley of MCH said many people experiencing homelessness are doing so in "doubled-up situations" where they might be staying with family or friends.
"Often, those family members and friends are also in precarious housing situations," she said. "So wanting to make sure that people in their network and other low-income households don't lose their housing."
Rep. Kevin Honan (D-Boston), one of the sponsors of the bill, said it is important that people have a place to stay during a time when social distancing and fewer in-person interactions are becoming the norm.
"I would also add that the public health crisis disproportionately impacts lower-income residents and it's an important measure for our collective health and well being," he said. "We want to protect people's tenancies."
President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will suspend foreclosures and evictions through April.
Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa (D-Northampton) sent a letter on Tuesday to Gov. Charlie 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.
On Wednesday, 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.
by Chris Van Buskirk, State House News Service
(WBZ NewsRadio graphic)