Progress on homelessness/COVID-19 is uneven

Some officials taking right steps, but not all of them

AT ONE OF HIS DAILY COVID-19 press briefings, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that the Newton Pavilion, formerly part of the Boston Medical Center campus, would serve as a health care treatment facility for Boston’s homeless population, a group which has and will continue to be affected by COVID-19.

This was welcome news to the dedicated Boston providers working on the frontlines at area shelters that lack the space to practice physical distancing as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.  This major step forward in the battle against COVID-19 would not have happened without Governor Baker’s and Secretary Marylou Sudders’ understanding of the steps that must be taken to check the spread of the virus within this vulnerable population.

Equally important, leadership demonstrated by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh; Sheila Dillon, the mayor’s chief of housing and director of neighborhood development; and many others should be recognized for the plan of action put in place to address this serious public health crisis.  They partnered with Boston Healthcare for the Homeless to create an immediate response to the critical need for short- and long-term quarantine space and the equipment needed for treatment.

These coordinated efforts demonstrate real leadership from thoughtful, engaged elected officials. And the excellent work done by organizations such as Pine Street Inn confirms that the right balance of care and expertise can help generate solutions from the ground up.

The city of Worcester has also exhibited leadership in its response to the outbreak. City Manager Ed Augustus and Dr. Matilde Castiel, the director of health and human services, have opened three shelters, each with the capacity to serve 25 homeless individuals, and are preparing to launch a fourth. While working to combat the spread of COVID-19, these centers are also poised to meet the unique medical treatment needs of those coping with substance abuse disorders.

More recently, Mayor Tom Koch of Quincy brought together Manet Community Health Center, the South Shore YMCA, and his local health and emergency departments to relieve pressure on Father Bill’s Place. Working collectively, they are making additional facilities available to provide sufficient social distancing space for community members experiencing homelessness.

And Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and Geraldine McCafferty, his director of housing, have galvanized the region’s medical and non-profit sheltering communities to establish testing sites for homeless persons and erect tents that will provide quarantine areas for those found positive for the virus and those awaiting results.

Each of these state and local officials approached this unprecedented pandemic in the same way; they recognized that they were not confronting a homelessness issue, but rather a public health issue with the potential for broad impact and added pressure on an already overburdened health care system.

I wish this were the universal response across the Commonwealth.  Sadly, it is not.

It’s difficult to understand why Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, unlike his peers around the Commonwealth, refuses to address this issue head on.  The same mayor who worked tirelessly to protect his constituents after gas explosions devastated his city, has not endeavored to partner with local health care and homeless services providers to minimize risk by identifying alternative spaces and depopulating shelters in Lawrence.  This misguided resistance remains his policy, even after the Commonwealth and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) offered the necessary support to city and town officials.

Community leaders around the state must realize that providing homeless shelters with the space, tools, and equipment they need is critical to slowing the transmission of this fast-moving virus.  Now is the time to act.

Local municipalities have the ability to leverage their resources and recapture many of these costs later through emergency funds from agencies such as FEMA.  Clearly, MEMA should actively engage local leaders in every corner of the state to reinforce the urgency of the situation, showcase models that are proving effective, and encourage them to step up now.

Empowering and engaging  municipalities and the nonprofit agencies in their communities  is, without question, the best way to relieve pressure on homeless shelters across the Commonwealth and curb  the spread of COVID-19.

Meet the Author

Joe Finn

President, Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance
I was moved by Governor Baker’s expression of frustration about the inability to secure personal protective equipment for health and human service workers on the frontlines of this pandemic.  While the governor and Secretary Sudders have an incredible task ahead of them, they have already achieved some remarkable outcomes in dealing with this crisis. Local leaders must not rely on the Commonwealth alone to fix their problems. It is time to embrace the old saying, “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”

Joe Finn is the president and executive director of the Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance.