February 17, 2021

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.

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