Portland has converted the Expo into quarantine space for homeless people and closed city shelters to new arrivals after two guests at the Oxford Street Shelter tested positive for COVID-19.

The actions show how Maine’s largest city is struggling to continue providing shelter and support to its homeless population amid the coronavirus pandemic, with some shelter guests refusing to be quarantined and crime running rampant in the Bayside neighborhood, where Portland’s shelters are located, city officials said.

“We’re having a very difficult time in Bayside,” City Manager Jon Jennings said Wednesday evening during an online emergency meeting of the Portland City Council.

Councilors called on state officials to help the city address the public health and safety threat that Bayside residents say is happening out in the open, including drug deals and drug use, public drinking in large groups and widespread trespassing in private yards.

“It’s a bastion of lawlessness that has just taken over,” Councilor Kim Cook said. “We have to do something … to restore order.”

Councilors suggested that Portland police have been hampered in pursuing arrests because courts have shut down and jails are releasing inmates charged with lesser crimes.

Councilors also urged surrounding communities to share the responsibility of caring for Maine’s homeless population, which is now without daytime shelter options because public buildings and social service agencies have closed under a statewide public health emergency.

“The city can’t handle this on its own,” Councilor Justin Costa said, predicting that what’s happening now in Portland has the potential to “reverberate” throughout Maine as people come and go from the state’s largest service center.

Jennings, Mayor Kate Snyder and several councilors called shelter staff members “heroes” and other superlatives for working in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, especially when many city employees cannot work because they have health issues, lack child care or have other concerns.

USM’s Sullivan Gym is converted Wednesday to a shelter for homeless adults who are not showing signs of COVID-19. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Jennings said a homeless man who was quarantined at the Expo because he may have been exposed to the coronavirus forcibly coughed in the face of a shelter staff member. Jennings said the man was arrested and the city plans to bring charges against him.

Jennings also described a taxi from Ellsworth, a city 155 miles down east, pulling up to the Oxford Street Shelter to deliver a man who had been released from a hospital there.

“We cannot be the triage (unit) for the entire state,” Jennings said.

In announcing the temporary ban on new arrivals at the city’s shelters, Jennings said they will remain open to 608 people who have used the shelters in the last 90 days. New arrivals at the shelters will be directed to access General Assistance benefits for housing and other services.

The Expo, a city-owned basketball arena, was used overnight Tuesday by 38 people who needed to be quarantined because of exposure to at least one of the two people who stayed at the shelter and then tested positive for the illness. Both of the infected people recently arrived at the shelter from outside Maine.

Jennings said that 67 people were identified as potentially being exposed to the two people who tested positive, but only 38 sought shelter on Tuesday. There were 98 people at the Oxford Street Shelter on Tuesday night, well above the 75-person maximum needed to allow recommended physical distancing while sleeping, city officials said.

The city opened the quarantine space at the Expo because it has run out of quarantine and isolation spaces within its family shelter buildings, said Jessica Grondin, city spokeswoman.

“The city is struggling to get shelter guests to take the pandemic seriously,” Grondin said. “Some are not wanting to stay in quarantine spaces and are leaving when told not to. Some are leaving in between staff’s 30-minute checks.”

 

A second person who stayed at the Oxford Street Homeless Shelter in Portland, shown in 2019, has tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The second confirmed case at Oxford Street was announced Wednesday by Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That case is a 58-year-old man who arrived at the shelter on March 20 from San Francisco, Grondin said. He was placed in quarantine on Monday as he awaited his test results.

The first shelter guest to test positive for COVID-19 is no longer in Maine, Grondin said. That person was a 40-year-old woman who came from Massachusetts to Maine last week.

She arrived at Oxford Street Shelter on March 25 and was quarantined on Saturday at the city’s family shelter. At least 27 other women who had contact with her and may have been exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 also have been quarantined.

On Tuesday afternoon, the shelter staff discovered that the infected Massachusetts woman had left her quarantine space, Grondin said. The staff immediately notified state health and public safety officials for assistance in finding and detaining the woman because only the state has the authority to detain people during public health emergencies.

Police found the woman late Wednesday morning back in Massachusetts, on Amtrak, and she was taken to a hospital in Boston, city officials said.

Confirmation of coronavirus cases has drastically impacted Maine’s only municipally run shelter, which had been operating at full capacity with 154 guests each night. While federal guidelines called for shelters to provide 6 feet of space between cots or mats, the Oxford Street adult shelter did not have room and people were sleeping within 2 feet of each other.

Dylan Monahan of Preble Street sets up USM’s Sullivan Gym on Wednesday as it’s converted to a shelter for homeless men and women who are not showing signs of COVID-19. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The confirmed cases came two weeks after advocates warned of the need for more shelter space to reduce risk among the homeless, and as several state and local agencies are working to open a “wellness” shelter by the end of this week at Sullivan Gym on the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine.

That 50-bed shelter at USM will serve men and women who aren’t showing symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and was intended to reduce numbers at the Oxford Street Shelter.

The city had converted the family shelter into its first isolation facility for people who were awaiting test results. Portland placed several families in hotels several weeks ago to open up that space.

By opening quarantine space at the Expo as well as the isolation space at the family shelter, the city has already reduced the number of guests that will be staying at Oxford Street. The Expo was opened late Tuesday, although the city did not announce the move until Wednesday.

In less than six hours on Tuesday, the city mobilized its limited staff and readied the Expo, Grondin said. Guests who stay at the Expo will be those who require quarantine space because they may have been exposed but are not symptomatic.

Those who have symptoms, are waiting for test results, or have tested positive will stay in isolation spaces at the family shelter, Grondin said.

“It is important to keep the quarantine space and isolation spaces separate to reduce intermingling of the two populations,” Grondin said.

The Expo was used as an emergency shelter last summer to accommodate an unexpected influx of migrant families seeking asylum. However, the city initially dismissed the idea of using it as a temporary homeless shelter to reduce crowding at Oxford Street during the pandemic, saying it was unable to staff the facility and the open floor plan was not suitable for trying to contain a virus.

Portland opened the Oxford Street Shelter 30 years ago and ever since has pledged to provide shelter for anyone in the city who needs it, as long as the rules are followed.

There has never been a residency requirement, although the idea has been discussed periodically because of financial pressures on the city and its inability to persuade other communities to pitch in.

Historically, roughly one-third of the people staying at the shelter are people who already resided in Portland, one-third were people who arrived from other Maine communities and one-third were people who came to the shelter from outside Maine.

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