Homeless shelters and other agencies prepared for the winter

Homeless tents. (Photo by Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash)

By Zhihan Yang
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON – While calling for more affordable housing, homeless shelters and other agencies are preparing to meet an increase in need through renting hotel rooms as winter approaches.

“We have tried to de-crowd shelters, we spread people out, we rented space and hotels to be able to give people additional space,” said Barbara Trevisan, vice president of the Pine Street Inn. “But there are more people on the street, and we are definitely concerned as the winter is coming closer.” 

Many homeless shelters have had a decrease in beds since last year due to COVID-19 protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which required a minimum distance of six feet between beds. 

“Beds in our dormitory areas for sleeping used to be very close together, just a few inches,” Trevisan said. “So we have had to remove some beds.”

St. Joseph House, the only individual homeless shelter on Cape Cod, also reduced shelter beds from 50 to 45, Happiness Unaka, chief operating officer of the Catholic Social Services said via email.

According to the Annual Point in Time Count on Jan. 26, while the total number of homeless persons on Cape Cod and the islands increased from 337 to 343, the number of unsheltered persons decreased from 50 to 28, compared to last year’s census.

“That was because of additional resources that were added through the COVID-19 federal and state funding sources to provide hotel rooms, to provide additional resources for those experiencing homelessness,” said Daniel Gray, continuum of care program manager of the Barnstable County Department of Human Services.

“It kind of levels out in a way that there were less people at what is the formal individual shelter, but many of those people were put up in hotel rooms because of additional resources.”  

The Duffy Health Center in Hyannis cooperated with several local agencies to operate a “motel stay program” that provided hotel rooms for homeless people during bad weather and those who tested positive for COVID or needed quarantines.  

“The motel stay program is usually much smaller in the summertime, but it will expand in size on Nov. 1,” said Heidi Nelson, the CEO.

According to Nelson, the center served around 140 people through the program last year.  

“We are prepared to serve as many people this year as we served last year,” Nelson said. 

In addition to temporary housing, the center also ensured that these people would be “safely housed” when they get out of the program, said Sara Grambach, director of development and community relations.

According to Gray, affordable housing is the “biggest gap” in Barnstable County. Many people, including those with vouchers that can subsidize rents, cannot find a place to move into.

“Whether it be sheltered or unsheltered homelessness, that is a traumatic experience for people. And the longer that somebody remains homeless, whether that be in a homeless shelter or whether that be living in a tent outside, those risk factors are compounded by the amount of trauma that they are experiencing. For any of us, that is a very stressful situation,” Gray said. 

“If you are under stress, you don’t know where you are gonna get your next meal. You don’t know where you are gonna be able to sleep that night. You don’t know anything about the next day that really impacts your ability to navigate systems, to be able to find a solution to long-term housing stability.” 

The lack of affordable housing is not unique to Cape Cod.

According to Trevisan, many people who live in the shelter work, but cannot afford an apartment in Boston. 

“In a place like Boston, the cost of living and the cost of rent is very high,” Trevisan said.

The Pine Street Inn provides housing for more than 1,000 people in Boston. One of them is a man in his 80s who used to live in the shelter before going to the hospital due to COVID.

“We thought possibly he might die. We would probably not see him again. And several weeks later he came back,” Trevisan said. “Now he is doing very well. He is healthy, and he is very happy.”

According to Trevisan, the Pine Street Inn is working on two housing projects which will provide about 250 new housing units.

“What is gonna end homelessness is housing, not shelters,” Trevisan said. “When people are in housing, they become much more stable. And then they are able to work on other things that have been … challenges for them.”

This article was part of a package created by the Boston University Statehouse Program about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts.

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