SALEM — Shelter providers and municipalities faced a daunting task in the first few weeks of the pandemic: how to safely care for people experiencing homelessness and to limit the spread of the contagious virus.

At the outset of the pandemic, cities and towns scrambled to find effective ways to protect populations experiencing homelessness as shelters were often crowded with multiple people sharing a space. Fears quickly arose among providers that COVID-19 could infect a large portion of their occupants, a scenario that could have inflicted serious damage and accelerated the larger rate of spread.

Shelter operators and advocates sounded the alarm early on, calling for an infusion of funds and support to create distance between people. Proposals such as keeping open seasonal shelters and providing easy access to hygiene were also on the table.

Local collaborative

Nearly four months later, local officials reflected on their response to homelessness as it relates to COVID-19, focusing on what worked and the challenges they faced. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll pointed to a collaboration between Lynn, Beverly, and Salem to create a combined shelter as an efficient use of resources in the region.

Driscoll said she worked with Lynn Mayor Thomas McGee and Beverly Mayor Michael Cahill to identify shared resources among the municipalities. The mayors had to decide whether or not to set up three different shelters or create one that could be used by each locality.

The three communities settled on a high school gym that was big enough to accommodate the three cities' homeless populations.

"It's a lot of resources. It's a lot of energy," Driscoll said. "It's a lot of time and talent that would be going in three different ways when we thought it might be possible for us to work on a collaborative fashion, and have one facility knowing how tough staffing is, and PPE, and all the resources that you need to bring something like this to bear, and so we each assigned leads in our community."

Driscoll joined Senate Housing Committee Chairman Brendan Crighton, Worcester City Manager Edward Augustus, and Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance Senior Director of Policy and Programs Joyce Tavon for a virtual webinar Tuesday. The conversation largely focused on the need for permanent housing and ways the Legislature and local communities have reacted to the public health crisis.

As of January 2019, the state had an estimated 18,471 people experiencing homelessness on any given day, according to data from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Of the total, 2,370 were experiencing chronic homelessness and 917 were veterans experiencing homelessness.

Shelters depopulate

As COVID-19 quickly engulfed the state, congregate shelters looked to depopulation as a way to curb the spread of the virus among those experiencing homelessness. The state could lose around 800 beds as a result of depopulation and efforts to meet guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control, according to rough estimates from the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.

Tavon said the state's Department of Housing and Community Development set a goal of creating 500 additional beds over the course of the next few months with funding through the CARES Act to help address the issue.

"That is going to be a challenge across the state for different providers, where can they turn to create that capacity?" she said. "And I think the key question we're raising at MHSA is how do we respond to this crisis in a way, as an opportunity to move the system in a better direction for the future, and ideally in a housing-focused direction."

The Legislature included $5.8 million in the COVID-19 supplemental budget for organizations providing low-threshold permanent supportive housing in non-congregate single-occupancy settings. Some advocates have said non-congregate settings provide a safer alternative to congregate shelters during the pandemic. These shelters could range from purchasing a hotel room for an individual to efforts to lease properties.

Gov. Charlie Baker has yet to sign the spending bill into law but did extend on Tuesday a ban on most evictions and foreclosures until Oct. 17, a move advocates say helps prevent homelessness.

Facing a surge in cases and the potential for hospital capacity overflow, Worcester repurposed the DCU Center in downtown for extra COVID-19 patients and those experiencing homelessness. Augustus said the city depopulated its main shelter and moved some of the people into other locations like the DCU Center and three other locations within city high schools and church basements.

"We used it as a way to kind of engage with them. So we had food brought in, we had telemedicine brought in, we had recovery coaches brought in. We got people signed up for benefits. We did regular testing with them," he said. "Before we closed that last shelter, 42 people who were in those shelters are now in permanent housing or in a recovery bed, they did not return to the main shelter or to the streets."

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