COVID-19 taking toll on providers’ ability to help the homeless

Homeless man near the entrance of Arlington Station. Photo by Matteo Venieri/BU News Service

By Eileen Qiu
Boston University News Service

BOSTON — Wintertime usually signals the holiday season filled with gifts, laughter and joy against a snowy background, but for over the 18,000 homeless people in Massachusetts, winter is a time of struggling to survive with new challenges brought by the pandemic.

According to data from the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, there were around 3,000 families in the Massachusetts Emergency Assistance Shelter program in 2020.

Shelters around the greater Boston area are trying their best to keep up with the demand for a safe and warm place.

Michael Cochran is the director of the Cambridge Warming Center. First opened in April, the center serves around 30 people a day, about half of what the space used to hold before COVID-19, Cochran said. The beds are first-come, first-served, but the shelter does its best to accommodate all visitors and collaborate with other shelters around the area to find people space. Guests have access to hot meals, beverages and showers.

“There are a myriad of challenges brought on by COVID,” Cochran said. “It’s affecting donations, the amount of people we can serve and testing is a concern.”

If an individual tests positive for COVID-19, the institution shuts down admission for a few days, further limiting resources.

The center’s clients are have unique struggles. Men, women and couples are able to go to the warming center for shelter, Cochran said. Families are moved to different programs and kept together as well.

The warming center will be kept open until April 15.

The Pine Street Inn is another shelter in Boston. Barbara Trevisan, the vice president of marketing and communications, said their outreach teams go around Boston every day and night of the year by van and on foot to look for people who may need help.

The outreach counselors provide food, warm beverages, blankets and clothing to the individuals who choose to stay outside.

The goal is to build trust with these individuals and move them from the streets into housing, Cochran said.

Their organization supports around 2,000 women and men daily. However, like the Cambridge Warming Center, COVID-19 has creating more challenges for shelters, as there are new limits to the amount of people they can assist each day.

Because of an early COVID-19 positive rate of 36% due to a crowded shelter, Trevisan said the Inn leased a hotel, moving 200 guests there in order to properly social distance. Not only this, but the Inn has implemented handwashing stations and requires all guests and staff to wear masks. As a result, the COVID-19 positive rate is around 2%.

Despite the difficulties the Pine Street Inn has faced throughout COVID-19, it has not turned anyone away this winter, Trevisan said. Their staff are doing their best to maintain social distancing. The City of Boston has also helped by providing additional beds for the winter.

However, the new protocols have added significant cost increases to their operations.

Funding for the Pine Street Inn comes from a combination of city, state and federal funding, along with donations from various corporations and individuals.

The fiscal year 2021 budget signed into law in December includes over $185 million for Emergency Assistance Family Shelters (EA) for families in immediate need of shelter.

The Legislator recognizes the continuing need for service across the state, especially as the pandemic continues, Michael Rodrigues, Senate Ways and Means Chairman, D- Westport said.

“The Senate recognizes that protecting the health and safety of those experiencing homelessness — as well as prioritizing housing stability for residents of the commonwealth — is a critical component to ensuring an equitable COVID-19 recovery for all,” Rodrigues said.

Those in need of emergency assistance can call 866-584-0653.

This article was previously published in SouthCoast Today

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