I went to the Portland Expo one night to watch the Maine Red Claws.

It was a pretty good game. Maine lost to the Grand Rapids Drive, 102-101. The Red Claws had the ball with with time on the clock and a chance to win, but they couldn’t get a shot off. I  groaned in unison with the buzzer and, along with about 2,500 other people, pushed for the exits.

It seems like a lifetime ago, but that game was on March 6. Four weeks later the Red Claws are gone, and the Expo is an emergency shelter for homeless people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. It’s hard to believe how quickly things have changed.

Four weeks ago, COVID-19 was in the news, but it was not the only story. The Democratic presidential nomination contest was still being discussed, the unemployment rate was at a near-historic low and the newspaper was bulging with listings for municipal meetings, spring sports and arts and entertainment events. Now it’s not just the Red Claws who have gone dark, but everything else as well.

None of us has ever seen anything like this in our lifetimes, so we had nothing in our experience to tell us how seriously to take it. We got mixed signals from the authorities in Washington.  I saw the numbers coming out of China in January and February and the warnings about how our lives would be affected, but it didn’t sink in until a few days after the Red Claws game, when the National Basketball Association announced that it would suspend its season.

I don’t think that missing a few NBA games is more important than people dying in China. But I know that the owners of professional sports teams are a mercenary lot, and they don’t cancel the events that put money in their pockets just to be nice. I have heard of people dying in far-off places before, but I never saw a pro league close up shop, and the NBA was soon followed by other sports organizations at every level, from the NCAA tournament to Little League.


A disrupted sports season can’t match the disruption in the lives of the people who have taken the Red Claws’ place at the Expo. What does a stay-at-home order mean for people who don’t have a home?

After a second Portland homeless shelter client tested positive for the virus, the city has taken action. Beds at the Oxford Street Shelter are limited to people who have been admitted to the facility in the last 90 days. The Expo is being used to quarantine homeless people who have been exposed to the virus. The city’s family shelter is being used to isolate people who have tested positive for the virus, or who are showing symptoms and are awaiting test results. Homeless families have been moved to motel rooms. A new, overflow shelter is being set up at the University of Southern Maine’s Sullivan Gymnasium to keep the head count down at Oxford Street and allow for safer distancing.

Newcomers to the system are directed to the General Assistance office, where they can get housing vouchers.

As bad as this situation is, it’s bound to get worse. For two weeks in a row, the number of jobless claims has outstripped the worst weeks of the Great Recession. History tells us that other demands on social services, like food stamps and Medicaid, will climb as fast as people lose their jobs. And demand for beds in homeless shelters will surely follow unless there is intervention by government to keep people housed.

Whatever has been done so far by the federal and state governments to prepare for an explosion of need is almost certainly not enough. Cities like Portland can’t be expected to pick up the slack.

I wonder how many of us who packed into the Expo four weeks ago anticipated what the world would look like today. Shame on us if we say the same a month from now.

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