The Portland Expo on Park Avenue is being used as a quarantine space for homeless people. Ensuring quarantine protocols are met has been challenging for a stretched-thin staff. Gregory Rec / Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND — Taking care of the homeless during the coronavirus pandemic is proving to be a challenge to city and shelter staffs both in terms of staffing and ensuring compliance with health protocols.

Staff has been stretched thin between the temporary shelter at the Portland Exposition Building, set up to quarantine those who might have been exposed to the virus, the Oxford Street Shelter and the family shelter,  City Manager Jon Jennings told councilors at a workshop last week.

Several staff members have called out of work because of concerns for their own health or they had to tend to childcare or other responsibilities at home, he said.

Mayor Kate Snyder said the staff who are on duty are overworked.

“From what I have been able to glimpse, folks are working around the clock in just terrible circumstances,” Snyder said.

“What they are going through, what they are dealing with is nothing short of heroic,” Jennings said.

Staffers’ work is made more complicated because some members of the homeless community are not abiding by the city’s shelter in place order and are not following proper protocol, especially while in quarantine, to slow the spread of the virus, Jennings said.

Last week, he said, one man among about 30 people staying at the Expo, “aggressively” coughed in the face of a shelter employee. The man was arrested and will be prosecuted, he said.

Although being told they must quarantine in place, many are not adhering to that rule and leave and enter as they please.

One woman who tested positive for the virus last week left her quarantine space at the family shelter. The city alerted the Maine Center for Disease Control, Maine Department of Health and Human Safety and the Maine Department of Public Safety. The women ended up boarding an Amtrak train to Boston, where she was eventually apprehended and brought to a city hospital, Jennings said.

“As a city, we have no ability to force somebody to stay,” Jennings said.

Councilor Kimberly Cook said that because the state has the sole “authority to enforce a quarantine or require folks to isolate,” it should provide the city with staffing and enforcement help.

Portland Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow said she has asked for assistance from the Maine Medical Reserve Corps, a trained volunteer group that responds to public health emergencies, but Jennings said those volunteers are generally older so are among the at-risk population.

Jennings has temporarily closed the Oxford Street Shelter to new clients in an attempt to prevent a spread of the virus there.  Any of the 608 people who have stayed at the shelter at some point over the last 90 days are welcome, but newcomers are not.

He said he knows there are some who will criticize that decision.

A temporary 50-bed wellness shelter in USM’s Sullivan Gymnasium provides more space for homeless people during the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy / Preble Street

“I fully expect some of the nonsense we have seen over the years from advocates and others who will interpret this as the city rolling back its 30-year commitment to the homeless. That is not what we are saying we are doing today,” Jennings said at the April 1 workshop. “We are addressing a pandemic and doing the best we can.”

“Frankly I don’t know how we could do anything else given the circumstances,” City Councilor Nick Mavodones said.

Two additional individuals at the Oxford Shelter tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total of cases found there to four, Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director, said Monday. The latest two are now in isolation at the family shelter.

Jennings said the Oxford Street Shelter, much like the temporary homeless shelter opened in the Sullivan Gymnasium at the University of Southern Maine, is intended for people who have not displayed symptoms related to the coronavirus. The gym can accommodate 50, freeing up capacity and space at the Oxford Street Shelter for those there to practice proper social distancing.

The gym is being staffed through a partnership between  Preble Street, USM, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and MaineHousing.

Those who test positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting results are staying at units in the family homeless shelter. Families previously staying at there have been transferred to local motels and hotels.

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