Homeless Corona

This homeless camp is set up under the Starkey Avenue bridge in Attleboro.

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A week after Gov. Charlie Baker’s “stay-at-home” advisory, streets across the state are emptier than usual. But for the homeless in Massachusetts, the privilege of staying at home and being able to access sanitation facilities is a reminder of the homes they don’t have and the precautions they cannot take.

“While the state has acknowledged the need to protect vulnerable populations, little has been done to offer actual help,” said Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton.

Sabadosa is pushing for a bill that would disperse funds to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to aid the state’s shelter system in combating the community spread of the coronavirus.

“Quarantine shelters, funding to keep seasonal shelters open longer, and access to basic hygiene, like bathrooms and showers, are all immediate needs for people experiencing homelessness,” Sabadosa said.

The bill, which also has Rep. Paul W. Mark, D-Peru, as a lead sponsor, is intended to fund Telehealth services for behavioral health and revamp the access to medication-assisted treatment.

“Massachusetts must step up to help those who are without shelter if we truly want to protect everyone and slow the spread of COVID-19,” she said.

Among the supporters of the bill are area legislators Rep. James Hawkins, D-Attleboro, and Sen. Paul Feeney, D-Foxboro, who have historically worked to help chronically homeless people.

Hawkins has been rallying forces to build a homeless facility in the Attleboro area.

Last year. he had earmarked $50,000 as seed money in the state budget for one in the city.

Describing the shelter as an “important need” for Attleboro, Hawkins understood the dangers that the virus brought with it.

A recent study done by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, University of California Los Angeles and Boston University found homeless individuals, if infected with the virus, are twice as likely to be hospitalized and two to four times as likely to require critical care.

Further, those experiencing homelessness also had a higher chance of dying from the illness than the general population, the study said.

“We don’t have an emergency shelter in Attleboro and that leaves many vulnerable,” Hawkins said. “If we had had the emergency shelter in place, maybe we would’ve been better prepared for this crisis.”

The shelter he has been working toward would have 18 crisis beds and 21 permanent housing units with personal bathrooms and kitchenettes.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the plan, led by Northern Bristol County Advocacy Consortiums, was in the midst of negotiations with developers. But those negotiations have paused for now.

The pause also highlights the deficiencies in the current homeless shelter system and its preparedness, and why state legislators have been pushing for bills like the one introduced by Sabadosa.

Joe Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, has worked with shelters across the state. For him, the pandemic has only worsened the preexisting hurdles.

“There’s a big difference in how they (shelters) should react and what they have the capacity to do,” he said, explaining existing shelters were already burdened with space problems and disproportional resources for the number of people they were looking after.

In a setting where the system can currently shelter only 70 percent of the homeless and where beds do not allow isolation, social distancing models that could combat the community spread of the COVID-19 struggle to find ground, Finn said.

“They (shelters) lack the protective equipment and have already been suffering shortages in their staff,” he said. “The need is to depopulate these shelters. They’ve been doing that in Worcester — turning empty college dorms and school gyms into makeshift quarantine and isolation zones.”

Cities, he said, will now have to look at their resources and make contingency plans to save lives.

Devyani Chhetri is a reporter with the Boston University Statehouse Program and wrote this for The Sun Chronicle.

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