State and local officials are working on plans to address the risks to Vermont’s homeless population during the coronavirus crisis.
Advocates for the homeless are concerned that the homeless may be more vulnerable to the risk of infection and lack the ability to self-quarantine without putting others at risk in shelters. Infection also is a problem for the homeless who have more difficulties with hygiene and access to toilets, showers and laundry services, and for those with medical issues.
There is added concern that exposure to the virus for the homeless could threaten other populations, particularly the elderly and people with underlying medical problems, in local churches used as overflow shelters for the homeless in the winter.
It has prompted officials that deal with homelessness to review and update emergency plans and develop contingency plans to minimize and mitigate the risks for the homeless and others.
Just this week, the board of directors at the Good Samaritan Haven homeless shelter in Barre reviewed its protocols and procedures concerning infectious diseases.
The year-round shelter with 30 beds also oversees two overflow shelters at the Hedding United Methodist Church in Barre with 14 beds, the Bethany Church in Montpelier with 20 beds, and the NEST transitional housing for the homeless in Montpelier. In all, there are 77 homeless shelter beds in central Vermont.
“I’ve learned that we’ve had an infectious disease policy since 2012,” said Rick DeAngelis, the incoming executive director of the Good Samaritan Haven. “I was really pleased to see that.”
He said the policy was reviewed. One of the board members is a public health nurse with the Department of Health, who was also a school nurse for years. “We basically developed an operational plan to make sure that we’re as prepared as we can be,” he said.
But DeAngelis said he was concerned about what action to take if a homeless person exhibits symptoms of the virus.
“What do we do? How do we have these people tested and who’s going to address that,” DeAngelis said. “If we have a case where someone needs to be quarantined, we need direction on that as well – I’ve expressed that in writing to the Department of Health and to the Office of Economic Opportunity, which is our major funder, basically saying, ‘we need your guidance on this, if we have someone we’re really worried about.’”
DeAngelis said he is concerned about the financial impact on the shelter system of dealing with the virus, if staff members fall ill and other staff are needed to replace them; or if staff are afraid to come in to work if the virus spreads.
“We’ve got to have our employees come in to supervise the facility, do the overnight shelters, to be there to make sure it’s a safe environment,” he said.
DeAngelis pointed to the cost of cleaning supplies in the shelters, as well as transportation costs to take sick people to medical services.
Ken Russell, chairman of the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force, echoed some of DeAngelis’ concerns, and said it was in the interests of a healthy community to address the needs of the homeless during the pandemic.
“This situation brings homes the ongoing public health crisis that homeless people are part of every day,” he said. “Hopefully, people will consider the plight of the homeless even more at this point. They are more vulnerable, they are at risk and they need more resources.”
Russell went on: “We need to stop the spread of this disease in any way possible. And there are big concerns for congregations of church-goers who are proximate to a cluster of homeless people. ... Right now, there really needs to be effective leadership and great responsiveness and assertiveness.”
Pastor Amy Pitton at Bethany Church also expressed concerns about the risks of infection for her congregation in an email to homeless officials, saying it would be difficult to have someone self-quarantine at the church, but didn’t rule it out.
“We are currently looking at all of our ministries to see how to respond to the epidemic should it become an issue in Central Vermont,” Pitton wrote. Our congregation is made up of a majority of folks over 60, the most vulnerable demographic for this virus, and we will be considering carefully whether we need to cancel Sunday services.”
The plight of the homeless during the virus pandemic is also being reviewed by the Operation of Economic Opportunity.
“I do appreciate the point that people experiencing homelessness in Vermont is a vulnerable population and quite a number of them have underlying medical conditions,” said Sarah Phillips, director of OEO. “We do have a group that’s working on a coordinated response plan and the CDC has issued, in turn, guidance to homeless shelters and service providers.
“We have distributed that guidance and we’re working today to coordinate out communication at the state level and with our providers on the ground. Working closely with the Department of Health, we’re working to put together some additional guidance. We’re looking at some other specific questions what resources are needed to meet the needs of homeless populations,” she added.
Phillips also suggested that if people were concerned about the plight of the homeless, particularly during the pandemic, they should consider donating funds or offering to volunteer to help provide services.