AUGUSTA — While many Mainers stay home and try to keep six feet away from one another to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Benjamin Martineau is among those worried about the people who don’t have those options, because they don’t have homes.

“During this heath scare we’re told to stay home,” said Martineau, 51, who spent five months at Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter before finding housing. And Martineau is thinking about those still in the shelter and sleeping on mats or cots set up less than two feet from one another. “I got a place to come back to, but there’s no place for them to go.”

Preble Street, a nonprofit social agency in Portland, has called on elected officials at the local, state and federal levels to find better ways to protect Maine’s homeless population. Its recommendations include opening three additional shelters in the city, including inside the Portland Expo or some other public building, so that people can be further apart while they sleep.

Preble Street is also calling on officials to place a moratorium on evictions to prevent more people from becoming homeless, and for the city to ensure that people who are struggling know how to access General Assistance, a safety net program that provides vouchers for housing, food and other necessities.

Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, stressed the need for immediate action in the event a shelter client tests positive for coronavirus, which is more dangerous for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

“It’s not if, but when, we have a positive test, it could go like wildfire through this population and they’re going to end up at the hospitals,” Swann said. “As far as I’m concerned, this (additional shelter) has to open tonight, whatever the option is.”

‘MEDICAL VULNERABILITY IS QUITE HIGH’

Swann noted that about a third of homeless people have respiratory illnesses, and they have a dramatically shorter lifespans – by 20 to 30 years – than people who have homes.

“The level of medical vulnerability is quite high,” he said. “And if you layer into that crowded sleeping conditions, bad weather, sparse nutritional supplements, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. And I don’t say that lightly.”

One city official dismissed the recommendations, especially opening the Portland Expo as a shelter, saying they are not workable.

The Expo was used as an emergency shelter last summer to accommodate an unexpected influx of migrant families seeking asylum. But, City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said, the current situation is different and the city is unable to staff the Expo or other spaces as emergency shelters.

“We are dealing with an infectious disease and there is no way to properly separate people at the Expo given the open floor plan,” Grondin said. She said the open space made it difficult to contain a chicken pox outbreak over the summer among the asylum seekers.

“The effort over the summer was very labor intensive and is not something that could be duplicated for this situation,” she said. “It required the assistance of the state and many volunteers, all of whom would not be in a position to assist in the same way at this time.”

Grondin said the city doesn’t support Prebles Street’s other recommendations for “a variety of reasons.” She said courts are not handling evictions cases right now, so landlords cannot forcibly evict tenants. And she said the Southern Maine Landlords Association is encouraging its members to avoid displacing tenants.

Others cities and states around the country also are struggling with how to protect homeless populations from the virus.

Agencies in Chicago are buying hotel vouchers to move some people out of shelters. Shelters in Portland, Oregon, are trying to find ways to place floor mats or cots six feet apart, but operators say in some cases, the limited space doesn’t allow for it unless people are turned away.

Anchorage, Alaska, has opened up its municipal arena for additional shelter space so homeless residents can sleep at least six feet apart. At the city’s regular shelter, mats are right next to one another.

In New York, the first case of infection in an emergency shelter was reported this week. The city was forced to isolate other shelter residents in a separate facility, as well as stepping up precautions such as cleaning, and monitoring shelter clients.

It’s a possibility that has the attention of Maine officials.

Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, said state officials are working with partners at the Maine State Housing Authority and other officials, especially in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, to figure out ways to create more social distancing for shelter clients and ensure that spaces are available for people to self-isolate and quarantine if they are sick.

“We are assembling a team that is meeting more than once a day, typically, to try to figure out two solutions,” Lambrew said Wednesday. “We are working with all of them to find pragmatic solutions that are publicly-privately done to make sure homeless people, like other residents of Maine, can stay safe.”

A DHHS spokesperson did not respond to a request to clarify Lambrew’s comments about whether the team is already in place and meeting, or if it is currently being put together.

Grondin said Portland has devoted 12 smaller apartments in the family shelter for people who need to be quarantined while awaiting test results. So far, four homeless people have been tested and all tested negative, she said.

DISTANCING IS DIFFICULT TO PULL OFF

The Oxford Street Shelter in Portland is the only municipally run, low-barrier shelter in the state. It routinely exceeds its capacity of 154 adults, requiring additional overflow spaces to be used.

The city has said it is increasing the distance between shelter guests by requiring people to sleep head-to-toe.

That is one of the recommendations for shelter operators from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another is that mats or cots be spaced at least six feet apart, which would likely require additional shelter space. Mats remain less than two feet apart at Oxford Street.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said he did not know whether the head-to-toe approach would create the type of distancing needed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Shah has previously said that the CDC considers close contact, which can spread the disease, as being within six feet of someone for 15 minutes.

“We probably need more research in order to know,” Shah said. “But right now this is a situation in which everyone is doing the best that they can. We certainly encourage all innovative solutions and ideas.”

Swann said that Preble Street would be willing to offer a building it purchased at 55 Portland St. as additional shelter space.

Preble Street has already been told by the city that its building is not zoned for an emergency shelter.

City Manager Jon Jennings has declared an emergency, giving him additional power to protect public safety. He originally used that power to close bars and restaurants on St. Patrick’s Day and to implement a curfew on other businesses where people gather. That has since been superseded by a statewide order from Gov. Mills.

When asked if Jennings would consider using those powers to allow Preble Street to open a shelter at 55 Portland St., Grondin said the nonprofit has made no formal proposal for the city to consider.

Meanwhile, Preble Street is altering its services to the homeless community and providing as much information as possible to protect its clients, Swann said.

It is extending the hours at its soup kitchen, which serves nearly 1,000 meals a day to about 300 people, so it can limit seatings to less than 50 people. Everyone is being required to wash their hands when they enter and hand sanitizer is also being provided.

That’s forced the agency to close its Resource Center during the day. Services there are only available by appointment only.

The agency is also no longer allowing people who have housing to enter the soup kitchen and will instead provide take-out meals to people who have homes where they can eat the food. Swann said the agency’s weekly food pantry will be moved outside as well.

“We’re not hearing much about the homeless, or shelters or soup kitchens, but we’re here and we’re important,” Swann said. “The people we serve deserve as much attention as anyone else.”

The York County Shelter Program is also stepping up cleaning and implementing other protective measures, including taking the temperature of staff members who enter the building.

“We will get through this,” Executive Director Megan Gean-Gendron said. “We are doing our part to flatten the curve – in order for that to happen as quickly as possible, it is critical that we all take every protective measure possible.”

Grondin, the Portland spokeswoman, said the city is also taking necessary precautions, such as providing information to clients, encouraging good hand-washing, making masks available to those with coughs or cold symptoms, providing hand sanitizer and increasing its cleaning efforts.

“The City of Portland has been working on the front lines in direct contact with our most vulnerable community members for more than 30 years with one of the most dedicated and professional staffs,” Grondin said. “Each and every decision we make is with their best interests in mind … As the situation continues to evolve, we will respond accordingly.”


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