Worcester pursues interesting COVID-19 homeless option

Gyms, dorms can serve as safe, satellite shelters

IN TIMES OF TRUE CRISIS, true leaders emerge.  And at a moment when shelter providers across the Commonwealth are being asked to ignore the recommended protocols established to stop the spread of COVID-19 —by maintaining people in overcrowded shelters instead of practicing safe distancing and avoiding groups of more than 25 —Worcester City Manager Ed Augustus and Dr. Matilde “Mattie” Castiel, the commissioner of health & human services in Worcester, have stepped up to offer a safe and sane alternative.

These community leaders immediately developed a plan to use school gyms and college dorms across the city to divide shelter populations into groups of 25 in order to create the space necessary for isolation and quarantine.  In doing so, they brought the entire community of Worcester together to help a population that many others often seem to ignore.

While the current COVID-19 crisis poses a serious risk to the health and well-being of all of us in Massachusetts, individuals experiencing homelessness are almost certain to be placed in immediate life-threatening circumstances due to the insidious nature of this virus. And as local public health officials work diligently to manage its spread, it is essential that government leaders and advocates working on behalf of  people experiencing homelessness come together on a comprehensive statewide approach to protect this vulnerable population .

Whether you are a resident of Boston, Worcester, Lowell, Springfield, or Brockton, contingency plans must be developed and implemented immediately in order to avoid a catastrophic loss of life and additional pressure on our already strained health care system.

Individuals experiencing homelessness face a multitude of conditions that put them at high risk for developing serious complications from COVID-19. Far too many of the adults experiencing homelessness are elderly with complex, comorbid conditions and myriad disabilities that endanger their already fragile health.

In order to provide a safe space for as many people as possible, shelters often resemble army barracks, with cots lined up one after the other with little room between them. Shelters in every corner of the state are already at capacity, environments that will almost ensure the rapid transmission of an airborne illness. These facilities do not have the space required to quarantine infected individuals, let alone meet the social distancing recommendations as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control.

And aside from those relying on shelters on a daily basis, there are individuals experiencing homelessness who live in close quarters within the often unseen encampments located throughout Massachusetts. Chances are these individuals will likely find themselves in dire need of medical assistance.

The Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance is committed to working with the Commonwealth to tackle this crisis head on. The Department of Public Health and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency must muster their experts and resources right now. Sites that can serve as temporary shelters and provide sufficient quarantine space and emergency care for those presenting with symptoms must be identified, staffed, and readied for use. National Guard armories, vacant state university dormitories, and other safe facilities must be made available straightaway.

The Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance is currently working with these key state agencies to address this first-of-its-kind crisis. Given the close quarters that those experiencing homelessness find themselves in, and the underlying health issues faced by this population, this ongoing crisis demands broad coordination to offset the impact that emergency shelters and other programs serving our most vulnerable citizens are certain to face.

Meet the Author

Joe Finn

President, Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance
Saving lives requires a detailed plan— like the one implemented in Worcester—trained staff, sufficient supplies, compassion, and coordinated efforts to counter this crisis now, rather than waiting to play “catch-up” later.

Joe Finn is the executive director for the Massachusetts Housing & Shelter Alliance.