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Homeless support networks combat challenges of COVID-19
The pandemic has ushered in new challenges for those experiencing homelessness. Food pantries and shelters are stepping up.
February 18, 2021
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, homeless shelters and food banks in the Greater Boston area have struggled to combat the growing number of homeless clients while maintaining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for social distancing, sanitation and many other daily procedures.
Social worker Paul Epstein has helped countless individuals with their personal encounters with homelessness throughout his career at the high school. Epstein said the way people generally think about homelessness does not apply to every situation.
According to Epstein, there are many different types of homelessness. A homeless person can be in that situation for a variety of common reasons such as poverty, addiction, mental health trauma and domestic abuse. Epstein said when you see a homeless person on the street, be careful not to assume the details of their situation, as that experience could be different for everyone.
Homeless shelters are only one piece of the puzzle. Throughout the Greater Boston area, food pantries and food banks help homeless people by collecting, preparing and giving out food that would have otherwise been thrown away. The Brookline Food Pantry has three locations that support homeless and struggling people in Brookline and its surrounding towns.
Executive Director of the Brookline Food Pantry Elizabeth Boen explained the increase in the number of families the Brookline Food Pantry serves and their future plans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The change has been that across our three physical pantry locations. Instead of 175 families a week, we now see about 600 to 650 households per week,” Boen said. “We started a new program in March when the pandemic hit, which is home delivery, which we never had before.”
According to Boen, the Town of Brookline and the Brookline Food Pantry came to an agreement for keeping their services open while still maintaining appropriate social distancing measures.
“The Town of Brookline actually came to us to talk about whether we should close the pantry back in March when things were so uncertain about how this virus was going to spread. But we told them we were very uncomfortable that there could be hungry people,” Boen said. “[We considered] it could even be getting worse with businesses shutting down, people losing their jobs, and that there might be even more food insecurity. So they agreed with that and they set up some pretty stringent guidelines for us.”
In many cities, rent prices soar to a point where many people cannot afford them, so many of those people rely on affordable housing to live in the same area. Mark Fortes, who currently lives in a single room occupancy (SRO) at the Haley House in Boston’s South End, has been sporadically homeless for the majority of his life. Throughout this time, he has moved from the suburbs 50 miles from Downtown Boston in western Massachusetts to where he resides now.
Fortes said isolation is a common experience while being homeless.
“I have experienced many times where people look down at you. A lot of people who are homeless have a lot of mental [health] issues from my experience or drugs or some type of substance abuse,” Fortes said.
The Haley House offers 109 affordable housing units in their Low Income Housing program and a Live-In Community located on 23 Dartmouth Street. In addition to their housing programs, the Haley House provides opportunities for individuals to enjoy made-from-scratch meals and participate in their Urban Farming program, which includes the Thornton Street Farm and the McKinley Garden.
According to Epstein, understanding the state of impacted homeless individuals brings light to their futures. It provides the public an understanding of how the system works and what specific outlets are available to those in need. Epstein said he now understands the struggles of living as a homeless person.
“The other day I was kayaking and before the weather got too cold, I went on the Neponset River and it goes under [Route] 93. Sure enough, as I paddled under the bridge, there was a homeless encampment under the expressway,” Epstein said. “Someone just the other day was found dead along the banks of the Charles River. They had been living in a tent there, and the working theory is that they were exposed and hypothermia set in.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has already taken its toll on the economic sector, with every state setting a record unemployment rate since March of 2020. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, Massachusetts saw its record unemployment rate in June of 2020 with approximately 17.7 percent. In December of 2020 however, the current unemployment rate was around 7.5 percent.
Examining the relationship between unemployment and homelessness, although completely different issues, can provide insight into how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the state of shelters, food banks and isolation with homeless people.
The Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program offers a wide variety of healthcare and service to over 11,000 individuals throughout the year. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, that number has surged. In lieu of this increase, their staff has worked hard in collaboration with the City of Boston and their COVID-19 response team to follow CDC guidelines and stay safe.
Media Coordinator at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program Vicki Ritterband said the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on some of their programs, but they have adjusted and kept many of their more important operations.
“We have had to quit some of our really wonderful programs. [That being said], on Saturdays we have a special clinic just for women, because a lot of women have trauma from physical or sexual or emotional abuse from men,” Ritterband said. “On Saturdays, we have this clinic so women can come and they can see their nurse.”
The St. Francis House and its volunteers in Boston experience a different type of isolation with their clients. Maggie Burns, the Vice President of Philanthropy and External Affairs at St. Francis House, said the social distancing procedures conflict with the practices of their staff trying to help homeless people going through stressful and often traumatic situations.
Burns said the City of Boston and its homeless shelters have responded to the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic by opening additional facilities.
“It is an emergency situation for the City of Boston, so they need to make adjustments. The homeless population providers and the city opened additional facilities to be able to narrow the number of homeless people and the limited space [we have],” Burns said. “They also had quarantine and hospitalization for individuals who contracted or became exposed to COVID-19.”
According to Burns, many of their programs had to be adjusted or temporarily paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have behavioral health programs, workforce development programs and housing stabilization programs. And then COVID-19 hit,” Burns said. “We had to adjust all of our programming and our refuge, which limited the amount of space we had available to invite people in.”
Burns said the St. Francis House prioritizes the mental health of their homeless clients. They assume everyone that visits them has experienced some degree of trauma in their past.
Burns said dealing with traumatic experiences as a homeless person can easily lead to substance abuse to cope with grievances of their day-to-day lives.
“Oftentimes people will compensate for their personal trauma by abusing substances and getting addicted to substances,” Burns said.
According to the high school’s website, the guidance department prioritizes students’ emotional well-being and mental health and works to find a solution to common socioeconomic problems.
Epstein said he helps students where homelessness is a factor.
“My goal, whenever I meet a student who is in a situation [like homelessness or poverty] is to do whatever I can and gather as many resources as I can to ameliorate the life of that student to lessen the devastating, negative effects of the homelessness and to bring small doses of stability,” Epstein said.
At the high school, there are many resources for students that are in place to support the student body’s mental health and emotional well being. According to Epstein, while these mental health services are clearly posted and shown throughout the school year, opportunities for homeless students and families in the high school community are lesser known.
Epstein, who has had over 15 years of experience helping homeless students and families at the high school, said Brookline does not offer many opportunities for families that are already in homeless shelters.
“If they’re already in a situation where they’re living in a shelter, they don’t have a home of their own,” Epstein said. “Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of great options in terms of securing housing in the town of Brookline but certain families certainly applied for what’s called public housing.”
According to Epstein, the public housing services every town offers have long waitlists but there are some scenarios, such as domestic abuse, that would accelerate someone near the upper-half of the list.
According to a 2019 study conducted by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, approximately 18,500 people are currently homeless in Massachusetts. There are also approximately 3,800 family households experiencing homelessness or extreme poverty within our state borders, which is more than in Texas or Florida, two states that have four times the population of Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts State Department issued a pause on evictions that originally ended on October 17, 2020. When the state moratorium expired, a federal moratorium established by the CDC became effective throughout the nation. The federal moratorium was scheduled to end on January 31, 2021 but was extended shortly after to March 31, 2021. Even with these protections for tenants throughout the state, rent in the Boston area keeps skyrocketing, which is forcing many lower and middle class families, especially those who identify as African-American or Latinx, to move elsewhere or experience homelessness.
Hardships for the homeless population were present long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit worldwide. Despite these experiences, organizations that offer services and support for homeless people have taken advantage of the situation to raise awareness.
In Boston, the Pine Street Inn serves over 2,000 homeless men and women per day. They prioritize helping their clients with transitional housing, emergency health services and workforce development amongst other things.
According to Pine Street Inn’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications, Barbara Trevisan, the balance between keeping people safe while helping their clients is challenging to solve logistically.
“It has been a balance between trying to get to do everything we can to help people and keep people safe,” Trevisan said. “One is homelessness and wanting to really work with people and help them move forward and the other is really keeping people safe around this virus.”
Trevisan said the COVID-19 pandemic has lowered the number of volunteers present at their buildings, which has led to many challenging scenarios for the staff that remained there, with isolation playing a larger role in their clients’ mental health.
Fortes said that his passion for cleaning and protection is crucial for combating COVID-19. The Haley House used to have student volunteers from Boston College help in their kitchens, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fortes and the other residents have had to take on a larger role.
Burns said the support programs, housing opportunities and safety procedures in the St. Francis House care for their clients everyday.
“St. Francis House welcomes between the hours of 6:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. and about 500 people a day. We have a facility that has 10 floors,” Burns said. “We also have a refuge program where people can come to eat, shower, get a change of clothes and get their toiletries. We [also] have 46 units of affordable housing where they are independent living apartments and we have done some great work and keeping those folks safe.”
Similar to the St. Francis House, Ritterband said the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program helps thousands of people in a variety of ways.
“We deliver health care to about 11,000 homeless or marginally housed people every year. That includes behavioral health care, which is taking care of their psychiatric needs. We do dental care,” Ritterband said. “We also do case management, so if they need help applying for government benefits or something like that, we can help them.”
Ritterband said the organization quickly changed their procedures and had testing and care facilities that are always open to the public in Boston.
“In late March we erected these two big tents in a parking lot in the South End. One of them was for people who were suspected of having COVID-19. So we would have them there until their throat results came back,” Ritterband said. “And then the other tent was for people who had a verified infection. We kept them there isolated and took care of them.”
The Women, Infants & Children (WIC) Nutrition Program supports pregnant and breastfeeding mothers as well as children under the age of five. In addition to WIC, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps low-income families gain access to nutritious food with a monthly benefit provided by the state.
“The WIC benefits were increased for women and SNAP benefits were also increased for many different groups,” Boen said. “These larger groups really got in touch with their constituencies and asked all of us to be a little bit more politically aware in making sure our legislators knew about these upcoming bills and that we all wanted them to support them.”
Boen said much of the food insecurity in the Brookline area can be attributed to many students being in the remote learning model and some students not being able to be home alone.
“In Brookline, we definitely saw a spike in numbers of people, with school-age children [coming to our pantry],” Boen said. “We know many people either lost their jobs or their hours were cut when the pandemic started, but I think what we kind of overlooked is the fact that so many people had to stop working because now their children were home during the day.”
Boen said the COVID-19 pandemic hurt their volunteering program, but since then, they have recovered in a variety of ways.
“It has been incredibly inspiring to me and to all of the volunteers at the pantry how many teenagers have come through for us,” Boen said. “Last spring, so many adults had to stop volunteering, and we literally lost 95 percent of our regular volunteers at the pantry.”
Boen said the pantry’s success was thanks to volunteers from the high school.
“The teenagers, especially Brookline High students came through for us in such great numbers. That is really the only reason we did not have to close down a day here or there, or shorten our hours of anything like that,” Boen said. “It has been incredible. We would not be the pantry we are without them.”
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which authorizes the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) Program has helped students that are experiencing homelessness or housing instability with a variety of rights.
The law includes the student’s right to immediate school enrollment even when records are not present, the right to remain in the school of origin, if in the student’s best interest, the right to receive transportation to and from the school of origin and the right to receive support for academic success.
Epstein said these federal programs can protect and support homeless children, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic where homelessness and unemployment are more common sights.
“They haven’t been able to ask for stability and then their education takes a hit because they have to start over and that can have just as devastating effects,” Epstein said.