The coronavirus is not just making people sick – it’s also exposing weaknesses in our social safety net.

Nowhere is this more true than in the systems used to combat extreme poverty. Homelessness, whether it’s caused by gaps in the community mental health system or a statewide lack of affordable housing, has been ignored for too long, leaving cities and nonprofits stuck making do with inadequate resources.

But the COVID-19 crisis has made it clear that packing people together in overcrowded shelters is a death sentence, and the current system of shelters lacks the capacity to care for an influx of new clients that can be expected to arrive in the months ahead if the economic downturn that the virus brought on persists.

Fortunately, a number of entities have stepped up to the challenge. The city of Portland has expanded its shelter operation to separate people with COVID symptoms from people who have been exposed but are not showing symptoms and from people who have not yet been exposed. And the nonprofit social service agency Preble Street has been working with the state to manage a “well shelter” at the University of Southern Maine’s Sullivan Gym, taking care of 50 people a night, giving the city’s Oxford Street shelter some breathing room.

They are being helped by funds passed by Congress in the CARES Act, giving these agencies options that they didn’t have before. And there should be no going back.

On Thursday, Dan Brennan, executive director of MaineHousing, the state housing authority, pledged to work with state government and outside groups to build a new shelter system. “We simply can’t go back to the way things were,” he told a legislative panel. “We need a new approach.”

Brennan did not share any details of the plan, but the weaknesses of the system are well known.

Maine needs a regional approach for emergency shelter to avoid concentrating people in the deepest need in Portland, where city services become quickly overwhelmed.

And emergency shelters need to be backed by permanent housing, where clients are more able to access mental health and substance use treatment. These projects have a proven track record of improving people’s lives while saving taxpayer money on costs such as police interventions as well as ambulance rides and emergency room visits.

With the reopening of some businesses around the state, there may be a false sense that the worst of the crisis is behind us. But there are plenty of reasons to still be concerned.

Nutrition programs, like the Preble Street soup kitchen in Portland and food pantries around the state, have seen enormous  increase in demand. In past recessions, food shortages were harbingers for increase in the need for homelessness services a few months down the road.

COVID did not create deep poverty, but it has made it easier to see where our relief systems fall short. This is one area where no one should be longing for a return to normal.

The COVID crisis gives us an opportunity to do better. We should not miss it.


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