BRUNSWICK — Guests in Tedford Housing’s adult homeless shelter are in close quarters at the best of times. In the face of a global pandemic, with officials recommending at least 6 feet of space between people at all times, those close quarters are too close for comfort. 

Tedford Housing’s Cumberland Street unit in Brunswick, as seen in this March 2017 file photo (Ben Goodridge / The Times Record)

In an effort to help keep guests safe, Brunswick Town officials reserved five hotel rooms for two weeks. The rooms, which cost the town $3,488, are paid for through Friday, at which point town and Tedford officials will reevaluate and figure out a plan to move forward, according to Town Manager John Eldridge.

Eight people, half the shelter’s 16 person capacity, are staying in the rooms and are still receiving all Tedford services, including case management, transportation to appointments and three meals per day. Executive Director Rota Knott did not disclose which hotel in an effort to protect the privacy of the guests, but said that it is roughly a mile from the Cumberland Street shelter. 

According to Knott, the guests who are staying in the hotel either have preexisting conditions like asthma or diabetes or who need additional space. People with preexisting conditions and compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

Some guests are still working daily, and as they walk to work, it worked better that they stay at the shelter to limit their transportation time, she said. 

With only about half the usual number of people staying in the shelter, officials were able to give people more space and better protect others from getting sick. 

Tedford’s adult shelter is open around the clock until the end of April, at which point Knott and the board of directors will reevaluate the situation and may go back to closing during the day. The shelter is effectively closed to the public and, despite a few empty beds, officials are not accepting new guests in an effort to protect the health of those already at the shelter. 

Any guests who do exhibit symptoms are asked to visit their doctors for evaluation and medical clearance before coming back, Knott said.

The organization has primarily been focused on prevention, but Knott said that if someone does test positive there are options, such as the self-contained handicapped accessible room or the women’s dormitory. 

Beyond the 16 individuals and the six families currently served, there are many others in the community without that option. In fiscal year 2019, Tedford Housing served 86 individuals and 23 families in the adult and family shelters but had to turn away 251 individuals and 205 families due to lack of space. 

Local places where members of the homeless community might normally spend some time, such as Curtis Memorial Library, Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program and The Gathering Place, a day shelter, are closed to the public. 

“We’re not able to take anyone else in, but lots of folks are calling for space that we can’t give them,” Knott said, adding that she hopes Tedford can be part of the conversation on how to help those people. 

“As we’re all thinking about hunkering down and trying to social distance and wait this one out and protect our loved ones, we can’t forget about those folks who don’t have a family or a place to go and a support system to help them get through this,” she said earlier. 

The lack of space only drives home the need for a larger shelter and resource center.

“Everyone is struggling but there are other shelters that are able to reconfigure and house more people because they have a larger space,” she said. “That’s just not an option for us.” 

Plans for a new shelter and resource center were presented to the town council roughly two years ago, but were put on hold when town officials realized there was no zoning that allowed for a homeless shelter. The ensuing zoning process dragged on for about a year, after which Tedford officials had to go back to the drawing board.

Knott, who took over for previous director Craig Phillips when he retired in January, said she has been meeting with community partners to form a strategic framework before relaunching the process. 

“We have to figure out how we can work together,” she said. “This isn’t just Tedford, this is the whole community.” 

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