As the number of infections and fatalities from coronavirus grows daily, Massachusetts officials have yet to present a plan for protecting and preventing an outbreak among thousands of people who depend on crowded homeless shelters around the state.
That’s according to shelter operators, advocates and state lawmakers who told WGBH News that despite weeks of conference calls with state officials, there remains no coherent plan or guidance from the state for shelters providing beds to dozens, or even hundreds, of individuals every night in dormitory-style facilities.
Those shelters, meanwhile, face an increasingly impossible dilemma: The critical service they provide now also poses the risk of exposure to coronavirus for residents and staff — and the crowded conditions mean an outbreak could be disastrous, for residents and the general public.
Many shelters are “very overcrowded, and in this time when we are working so hard in all realms to have people have ‘social distancing,’ it is just the opposite when it comes to our homeless shelters,” said State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, of Pittsfield, which hosts two of the only state-contracted shelters in western Massachusetts.
“In these shelters, not only are people kind of packed in there, but most of the people experiencing homelessness have very high vulnerability to this disease,” said Farley-Bouvier. “So we’re very concerned for them as individuals but also this as a public health threat.”
There has not been a comprehensive plan for this across the state,” Farley-Bouvier said. “As we work to flatten the curve and keep our health system from being overrun we are not addressing at all some of our most vulnerable people. … And it is not in the capacity of the [shelter] providers to be able to handle this situation on their own.”
Shelter operators have similarly been raising alarms, or trying to, as they stare down the potential for an outbreak in their always-crowded facilities.
John Yazwinski, president and CEO of the Father Bill’s and MainSpring shelter in Quincy, described the situation he and his shelter faced as “impossible” to WGBH News a week ago and said he was waiting for state authorities to describe a plan of action.
Jim Stewart, founder and director for more than thirty years of the First Church Shelter in Cambridge, said Friday that despite weeks of conference calls between shelter operators and state officials, no such plan had emerged.
“It’s a public health catastrophe waiting to happen,” said Stewart.
Stewart said that his shelter, already a smaller one in the Greater Boston area, has had support from the city of Cambridge and that he feels conditions there are relatively safe for guests; and he said he was glad to see steps taken by neighboring Boston to create additional quarantine capacity.
But Stewart, who has participated in weekly conference calls with state officials and shelter operators, said the situation elsewhere in the state remains grim.
“People are being told, ‘Well, you’re going to have to take care of it at the community level,’” Stewart said, “Meaning MEMA isn’t going to provide access to facilities, they’re going to leave it up to the localities.”
The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which oversees homeless services, has declined to make an official available by phone and has offered limited response to WGBH News with regard to any plans for state-contracted shelters.
An agency spokesman said last week that a multi-agency group “continues to develop a comprehensive plan for housing for individuals, including homeless populations, who are unable to quarantine or isolate at home,” Asked days later for an update to that statement, the state did not provide one.
The question of how homeless shelters — especially big, crowded ones — can possibly stay open and address the coronavirus crisis has taken on greater urgency as the number of infected people across the region grows.
In Boston, where Mayor Marty Walsh said on Sunday that the virus had hit the city’s homeless population, officials had already erected heated tents to serve as isolation or quarantine facilities for people with coronavirus symptoms who would otherwise be staying in a city shelter.
Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that the state was opening facilities for shelter residents at the shuttered Newton Pavilion in Boston’s South End; and on Sunday, Mayor Marty Walsh announced the city had secured additional facilities — including a Suffolk University dorm with more than 170 beds — for shelter residents comprising hundreds of units in total.
But it’s unclear whether state officials have such plans, or any plan, for thousands of homeless shelter residents in other parts of the state.
“It’s good something’s happening in Boston. That’s certainly a large population of homeless people,” said Joe Finn, president and executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, which advocates for shelter operators and residents.
“But there are many communities across the Commonwealth who don’t understand exactly what the plan is to deal with, how are we going to protect the people experiencing homelessness that we serve, and how are we going to be able to ensure that people are being quarantined appropriately? Right now, there don’t seem to be a lot of answers on this.”