Homelessness in Washington County may nearly disappear before April because of COVID-19. Local groups, using state funding, contributions, and volunteer labor, are shutting down the four shelters in Barre and Montpelier and providing hotel rooms to the former shelter guests.
A pandemic adds new levels of stress to an already stressful life on the streets. How do you self-isolate at home if you have no home? Shelters for the homeless bring a varying group of people into nightly use of the same facilities, sometimes in close contact with each other.
And where do you go during the day? One woman who has been staying in the shelter in the basement of Montpelier’s Bethany Church said, “There are just fewer things to do. I can’t go to the library or many other places anymore.”
The state of Vermont has stepped in with funding to provide homeless people with rooms in a number of local hotels.
In Washington County, Good Samaritan Haven runs four homeless shelters. The 30-year-old organization’s original shelter is in Barre. Rick DeAngelis heads Good Samaritan Haven, which runs the county’s four homeless shelters. He said there are usually 30 people each night at the original shelter, a large single-family house in Barre which has been adapted to group use. “Bedrooms have bunk beds,” he said, “and there’s a kitchen area and an office.” Total capacity at the four shelters is 77.
By March 21, DeAngelis said, they had reduced the number of guests at each of shelters to around 10, which corresponds to the maximum number of people permitted at “non-essential gatherings,” according to an order from Gov. Phil Scott. By the end of the month, he expected to have moved everyone who used the shelters in hotel rooms.
While providing more privacy, and a place to stay during the day as well as at night, providing hotel rooms to the homeless brings a new set of challenges. Denise Goodwin, who serves as “housing navigator” at Good Samaritan, was in an eerily quiet building at the main shelter on a recent Friday afternoon. She said she had been working from home the entire week, and then came in to help a client with an issue. “We have people delivering meals to the hotels, to the shelter for the folks who are still here. People are donating food. There’s an incredible amount of generosity.”
“It’s been a wild, intense time,” said Ken Russell, who chairs the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force.
“With a great turnout with Mutual Aid Montpelier, we’re finding new volunteers. We have a new street medic group, getting people out there both to get good information out there and tending to people’s needs. But we’re doing that in conjunction with public health authorities who are, of course, slammed, so we’re trying to get on top of the situation locally.”
On the evening of March 21, people with bags and backpacks gathered behind Montpelier’s Bethany Church to be admitted into the basement shelter. One by one, shelter worker Keron Asencio admitted them through a back door. After they descended to the basement in a stairwell, Asencio asked quick screening questions about how they felt and asked them to wash their hands with hand sanitizer. Then each went to get a cot and set it up along the outside of the cavernous room–well more than six feet from each other.
Though hotel rooms offer more privacy and amenities than shelter housing, not everyone was excited about the move. One man said he had moved to Vermont from Florida in December, because he feared for his safety as a homeless person in Florida. (No one using the shelter wanted to be identified by name in this article.) He said, “I don’t understand. With the other viruses we’ve dealt with in the past, nobody has ever closed anything down to the level I’ve seen here. Why is it now? I think it’s not very nice.”
A woman expressed ambivalence about moving to a hotel room. But another man was more interested. “It’s a good solution. I don’t know if it’s the best. At least they’re putting us in a place; we’re not just being dispersed, to be outdoors.”
Asencio said he was the first homeless person to use the Bethany Church shelter when it opened in 2016, and now he staffs it on weekends. He said routines have changed there, with a lot more spraying bleach and water solutions on surfaces like door handles and around the bathroom. He also said they used to offer a breathalyzer test when guests arrived, in case they wanted data to prove how much they were blowing at the time. “Right now we’re not doing the breathalyzation, because, obviously of the virus.”
People working to set up new facilities and services for the homeless spoke of working late nights, very early mornings, and through the weekends. I spoke with Eileen Peltier on Saturday morning–one of many calls she was on that day. Downstreet, the nonprofit she directs, is setting up housing for homeless who either go into quarantine or self-isolate after either testing positive for COVID-19 or being exposed to the virus and developing symptoms. “In neither of these situations do you need to be in the hospital. But you can’t quarantine yourself or self-isolate if you don’t have a home. This will help ensure the people in the hospital are the ones with the highest needs.”
Peltier said she expected to have leases signed to open the facilities at the beginning of this week. But, she added, “I think this is likely just the first wave of needs.”
DeAngelis agrees. “I’m planning for it to go on a long time,” he said. “We are thinking beyond the outbreak. We’re going to have an economy in ruins. Already people are short on money, out of work. I think there will be more homeless people in one or two years.”
DeAngelis says Good Samaritan is about to launch an appeal to those who can afford to support them. “This is putting unprecedented pressure on our tiny organization. For now, I’m just spending what I need to spend, and I’ll worry about it later.” He encouraged donations now at their website, GoodSamaritanHaven.org.