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Homeless Shelters Scramble For Capacity As COVID-19 Spreads

A person lifts up a tarp on a picnic table.
Peter Hirschfeld
VPR File
Aaron, 28, shows off his sleeping arrangements outside the United Church of Christ in Montpelier. He said he's most concerned about the effect of COVID-19 on elderly Vermonters experiencing homelessness.

State agencies and local shelters are scrambling to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness who may be particularly vulnerable to the disease.

Public health officials have strongly urged Vermonters to self-isolate in their homes. For the estimated 1,000 or so people that don't have one, however, the advisory is difficult to follow.

Those individuals include Aaron, a 28-year-old who lives under a tricked-out picnic table in the courtyard outside the United Church of Christ in downtown Montpelier.

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“I’ve got tarps over it at every angle,” Aaron said Monday. “I put carpet and cardboard down, and a foam sleeping pad, and so it holds the heat in, so it could be 10 or 12 degrees outside but in there it’s 65 degrees.”

Sixty-five degrees, because the stone patio he’s set up camp on has radiant heating.

“This is definitely like a Marriot. It’s a good spot,” said Aaron, who only wanted to give his first name. “And the church is benevolent enough to allow us to stay here as long as we keep it tidy and keep it clean, so I appreciate them for that.”

"It almost seems like we'd be safer on the street than in a shelter, because then you're in a room with 20 to 40 people, versus being outside." — Aaron, in Montpelier

Aaron said he fully understands the seriousness of COVID-19. And he said the advice from public health officials to self-isolate at home is sound.

But he said that advice isn’t terribly useful for people experiencing homelessness. And Aaron said he has serious reservations about heading to the local shelter.

“It almost seems like we’d be safer on the street than in a shelter, because then you’re in a room with 20 to 40 people, versus being outside,” he said.

Rick DeAngelis, director of the Good Samaritan Haven in Barre, said Aaron’s concerns are well-founded.

“Because a congregate setting like a shelter, people sleeping in bunk beds or in cots on the floor next to each other, it’s just … not a safe situation,” DeAngelis said.

A red Econolodge sign outside a hotel.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Good Samaritan Haven moved 40 people from three homeless shelters in central Vermont into this vacant Econolodge in Montpelier Sunday.

DeAngelis said that’s why Good Samaritan, at the behest of the state, moved the 40 people staying at three homeless shelters operated by his organization into an Econolodge in Montpelier that had recently been closed.

“So it took a tremendous amount of effort to make that happen, and in fact, we were successful,” DeAngelis said.

According to Ken Schatz, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, that big move in central Vermont on Sunday is part of a statewide effort to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in homeless communities.

“It is obviously particularly challenging, as you can imagine, for homeless people when much of the advice is about self-quarantine and limit contact with others when you’re homeless, because you don’t have a place to go,” Schatz told state lawmakers on a conference call last week.

Schatz said the state has already moved what he calls “hyper-vulnerable” individuals, such as elderly people experiencing homeless, and those with underlying medical issues, into hotel and motel rooms.

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The state has also distributed guidance to shelters that continue to operate, such as special sanitation regimens, and finding sites to isolate individuals who show symptoms of COVID-19.

A vacant dormitory at Lyndon Institute will be repurposed as a homeless shelter this week. And a spokesperson for the Department for Children and Families said more announcements will be coming soon.

DeAngelis said all these measures are taking a massive budgetary toll on organizations like Good Samaritan.

“My approach since the gravity of this thing has hit is that I am going to spend every dollar I have and do whatever I need to do to make sure our guests are safe and make sure my staff is safe,” DeAngelis said. “I have no idea where the money is going to come from, and I’m just spending what I need to spend.”

Good Samaritan, which generates about a third of its annual revenues from donations, issued an emergency appeal for funding Monday.

"I have no idea where the money is going to come from, and I'm just spending what I need to spend." — Rick DeAngelis, Good Samaritan Haven

With so much economic dislocation in recent weeks, DeAngelis said he’s worried his organization will have many more clients to deal with soon.

“So it’s not just an emergency appeal, it’ll help us be ready for the future and helping people in the future,” he said.

People in Aaron’s situation, meanwhile, are trying to acclimate to a world in which the few comforts they could count on, like public bathrooms, are suddenly off-limits due to concerns over the coronavirus.

“The thing they don’t think about is, ‘Well, where do the homeless go to the bathroom now?’” he said. “So it’s making it difficult to … have some semblance of subsistence as a homeless person.”

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Aaron isn’t worried about his own health: He’s got a strong immune system, he said, and a "titanium stomach."

"I can handle anything,” he said. It’s the older people he’s concerned about, and the ones with compromised immune systems.

And he said he hopes public officials do everything they can to keep them healthy as COVID-19 continues to spread.

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