SALEM — The region’s response to COVID-19 has begun to address the need for emergency housing.

Shelters and homes for those affected by coronavirus are just about ready at Salem State University and the Salem High School field house. Meanwhile, city officials are also looking for property owners with vacant apartments to make the spaces available to those in need.

The need is low right now, but the options are being set up in anticipation of a coming spike in the number of positive COVID-19 cases.

“We’d love to not need it, but we know the shelter population in Boston is 40 percent COVID-positive,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll, adding that homeless shelters around Salem and its neighbors have been clear of cases so far. “We also know it’s unlikely that’s going to continue.”

Spaces open at SSU, Salem High

Going into the weekend, officials were putting the finishing touches on a quarantine shelter in Salem High’s field house, which will mainly be used for local homeless people who are exposed to COVID-19. As that work wrapped up, Salem State University officials were also working on converting the Bates Complex on South Campus into housing for health care workers and others on the front lines.

“We worked really hard to consolidate the students that are staying on campus because of their need to remain on campus and not having other housing available to them,” said Carla Panzella, associate vice president and dean of students at Salem State. “We worked to consolidate our students to two facilities we have out of our six, which allowed us to free up other facilities for other partners.”

That includes things like health workers who are concerned about exposure to COVID and not wanting to bring it home.

“We want to support the health care providers who are providing support to those who are either positive or preventing them from being positive,” Panzella said.

Only three partners have reached out to Salem State for help so far, according to Rita Colucci, general counsel for the university: Lynn Community Health, Northeast Arc and the city of Salem.

At Northeast Arc, an untold number of staff risk exposure to COVID-19 when they work face-to-face with North Shore residents who have intellectual and other disabilities.

“Several of our staff have been tested positive and others on our staff may be worried, though none of the individuals we support have tested positive,” said Jo Ann Simons, executive director of the Arc. “It’s a very emotionally draining time for staff who might be concerned about whether or not they might be exposing their families to the COVID virus.”

Salem State, Simons said, “has always been a remarkable partner in the community. On many levels, we’ve collaborated with them in the past. We learned they may be looking at using their dorms as a community service, and we reached out to them.”

Unstable housing situations

The city also trying to provide assistance to families they say may be living in unstable housing situations.

“They might be in a motel, a shelter, or doubled or tripled up,” Driscoll said. “It’s pretty trying to be in a situation like that when there’s no child care. You’re home all day and, obviously, dealing with a public health emergency that on its face is difficult.”

Then, imagine “dealing with it when the circumstance where you’re living is unhealthy, difficult or traumatic, or all of the above,” she continued. The vast majority of them are single mothers, she added.

“We’re trying to make an appeal to anybody who has an apartment that’s vacant,” Driscoll said. “Reach out so we can assist with a placement.”

The housing at Salem State is free and offered to partners via a license agreement through June 30. Meanwhile, for vacant apartments, the city would cover the cost of housing through some sort of assistance or subsidies, Driscoll said.

“It tears at my heart to have folks in really small environments all day, and it’s stressful as it is — no routines, not doing the things you’re used to be doing,” she said. “We do have assistance for folks in these circumstances.”

Property owners with vacant units can reach out to the city by emailing Driscoll directly at

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or Follow him on Facebook at or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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