A Preble Street truck is parked Friday outside USM’S Sullivan gym, which has been converted into a “wellness” shelter for adults who aren’t showing signs of illness. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Preble Street social service agency opened a 50-bed, around-the-clock shelter Friday inside a University of Southern Maine gymnasium to ease overcrowding at the city-run Oxford Street Shelter, where two people have tested positive for coronavirus and may have exposed others in the cramped conditions inside.

The city said it learned Friday that a third client who had stayed at Oxford Street tested positive for the virus, adding to pressure to find more dispersed living quarters for the city’s most vulnerable population.

The first two cases at Oxford Street involved people who had recently arrived from out of state – a 58-year-old man from San Francisco and a 40-year-old woman from Massachusetts. The third case, a man, is a regular at the shelter, said city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin. The city does not know how he became infected.

The goal, said Mark Swann, Preble Street’s executive director, is to keep people from becoming infected by spreading them out into individual groups based on risk. The gym will be a “wellness” shelter for 50 men and women who aren’t showing signs of illness.

“If you’re homeless, you can’t stay home,” Swann said. “You have no place to go. So if we can spread people out in larger shelters, we can keep people safer.”

Swann said he had to hire about a dozen new employees to fill shifts, and is moving some of the more seasoned workers to the Sullivan Gymnasium at USM. He said he will likely have to hire more people in the future.


Based on recent usage figures, moving 50 people out of Oxford Street will bring the overnight population closer to 75, the largest number that can be be accommodated while also following standard social distancing guidelines calling for 6 feet of distance between beds. Outside the USM gymnasium, workers set up a temporary plastic hand-washing station. Anyone who comes to sleep at the USM location will have their temperature taken and will be asked health screening questions.

If someone is running a fever or are symptomatic, they will be turned away. Swann is also planning for what to do when someone at the wellness shelter becomes sick, forcing staff to ask that person to leave and to assess whether other people who were nearby may have to be removed, as well. Swan said he will be relying on his skilled staff to have those hard conversations with compassion and respect.

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann was at USM’s Sullivan gym Friday as it was converted into a shelter. “If you’re homeless, you can’t stay home” to stay safe during the pandemic, he said. “If we can spread people out in larger shelters, we can keep people safer.”  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Preble Street is all about client empowerment and individual choice and respect and dignity,” Swann said. “That’s everything we stand for, and I think we still carry those values with us really strongly. But we’re in an unprecedented situation here. We can’t force someone to go to this shelter or that shelter. But we can say, if you don’t go to that shelter, you can’t come into this one. And that’s because of the public health responsibilities we carry.”

Clients will be assigned the same cot each night, said Ali Lovejoy, who has worked for Preble Street for a dozen years. Preble Street will staff the facility around the clock, and a police detail will be posted at night. But people who are not checked in to sleep at the gymnasium will not be allowed to drop in and get a bed. The goal is to keep people indoors and from moving around or congregating in big groups, which is often the case outside the Oxford Street facility.

“We’re really encouraging them to stay put,” Lovejoy said.

The other emergency shelters in the city are at Florence House, with 40 beds; the Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter with 24 beds; and the Milestone Foundation with 41 beds. All are continuing to operate at capacity and are taking precautions to screen clients for symptoms of the disease each day.

The Portland Expo Center is being used as a quarantine space for people who have had confirmed contact with someone infected with the coronavirus. The family shelter on Chestnut Street has been split into separate areas for people who are awaiting test results and people who have tested positive and are in quarantine recovering. To make space, most of the 34 families have been moved to motels, Grondin said.

On Thursday night, 122 people slept at the Oxford Street Shelter and 29 were in quarantine at the Expo; six others were being housed at Chestnut Street awaiting test results.


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