There was a quiet, almost mellow, feel at the new Sullivan Wellness Shelter at the University of Southern Maine on a recent afternoon when I stopped by to check out how things were going there. A few clients were playing cards – at a safe distance, around a large table – a couple others were reading or watching TV, and one or two others were resting on their cots. It almost felt serene to me.

What a dramatic change from the crowded and hectic shelters and soup kitchens that were the norm for most people experiencing homelessness just a few weeks ago. Like just about everything else in the world, providing services to people experiencing homelessness in our community has had to change quickly in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Very quickly.

Shelters in Portland, working closely with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and infectious-disease experts, have all redefined themselves into one of four categories: wellness shelters, for those who are not sick from the virus; confirmed contact shelters, for those whom the Maine CDC has determined to have been in close contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19; person under investigation/observation shelters, for people who have shown symptoms, have been tested for COVID-19 and are waiting for test results; and a respite shelter, for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and need to isolate while they recover.

The city mobilized quickly and reconfigured some of the Family Shelter into a shelter for people under investigation and another part of it into a respite shelter. Milestone Recovery Emergency Shelter made adjustments within their facility, creating a person under investigation shelter on one floor and expanding the space of their overnight shelter to two floors to ensure they would be considered a wellness shelter with safe distances between clients.

The two Preble Street shelters – the Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter and the Florence House Women’s Shelter – have been designated as wellness shelters, as has the city of Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter. And two new shelters were quickly opened: The city of Portland opened the Portland Expo as a confirmed contact shelter, and Preble Street was asked by the state to operate the new Sullivan Wellness Shelter at the University of Southern Maine.

This new shelter at USM is a true partnership of Preble Street, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine State Housing Authority and the University of Maine System. Working together, we’ve quickly managed to open up the 24/7 Sullivan Wellness Shelter with security and operating policies in place, medical screening protocols established and professional social work staff overseeing ongoing management and operations. Preble Street has reassigned 16 staff members from five different programs to cover shifts there, as well as hired and trained new staff.


I’m incredibly proud of the staff of Preble Street, who are adding to their responsibilities during such a challenging time.

And I’m also very thankful knowing that there is a daily meeting with the organizations and professionals who are coordinating the work of this new and evolving shelter system and are on the front lines of homeless services in this community.  They are sharing information and resources, troubleshooting to solve challenges and communicating with each other on how best we can collectively keep our community safe.

This work is being done – on a daily basis – by Preble Street, Milestone Recovery, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the city of Portland, Mercy Hospital, Maine Medical Center and Greater Portland Health.

There is no playbook for responding to this particular public health crisis, and with logistics pertaining to the novel coronavirus constantly changing, we may not have a flawless system in place, but serious collaborative efforts are underway to ensure the safety of our vulnerable neighbors experiencing homelessness. These solutions may not be perfect, but they will save lives.

Comments are no longer available on this story