February 1, 2021

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.

Mark Fortes, a resident of the Haley House, said the COVID-19 pandemic has enhanced the feeling of isolation in the day-to-day lives of people experiencing homelessness. (ELIZA BROWN/SAGAMORE STAFF)

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 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 ,” 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.

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