Maine Homeless Shelters Face New Challenges Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Mar 19, 2020

Daily life has changed drastically as Mainers take steps to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Preparing and maintaining needed services for homeless clients has proven to be a challenge for shelters, who are dealing with limited space, supplies and a dramatic decline in the numbers of volunteers.

Jesse Williams and Katie Spencer White of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

On a recent morning, Katie Spencer White walks through the entrance of Waterville's Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter to a nearly empty lobby.

“It's so quiet. Our parking lot is usually full. You'd struggle to get a parking space. And I drove on today and it's just almost empty. So this is our new normal.”

And that new normal has posed serious challenges for shelters like this one, where she serves as executive director. White says it's not easy to follow CDC-recommended "social distancing" guidelines in an area where almost 50 guests sleep only a few feet from each other.

"It's like summer camp. Very, very condensed, all under one roof, where we've got rooms of eight beds and then communal dining," Wight says. "There's lots of things that we are changing, to adapt to the crisis. But it does become a matter of square footage. There's only so far you can spread people out before you hit the wall."

So the shelter has been forced to get creative: “you can see right now we've broken all the furniture down, and we're hoping to be able to move this out in the next couple of days.”

A conference room at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville is being turned into a dorm and potential isolation space.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

Here in the shelter's former conference room, the tables and chairs have been pushed into a corner. The shelter plans to convert the room into a makeshift dorm, and, if needed, it'll be used as an isolation space for anyone who may have been exposed to the new coronavirus. But with few medical supplies, and little expertise, White is still unsure how staff will care for those in need.

"It's a full house. You can't isolate people. And how do you bring employees, how do I ask staff to care for sick people without the proper equipment?"

"So now we are, you know, really focusing on immediate triage and making sure people have the safest possible place to stay in place and self isolate as needed. Which is not so easy," says Stephanie Primm, the executive director of the Knox County Homeless Coalition and chair of Maine's Statewide Homeless Council.

Primm says shelters across Maine are wrestling with similar questions. She worries that as cases of COVID-19 continue to climb, the demands on service providers may only increase.

“We're already seeing, as of today, some situations where family members who have been supportive of a couchsurfing situation are now are fearful that they are essentially kicking people out of the household. They're worried about infection. So there's a number of things contributing to what we are anticipating as a significant wave of need.”

Primm says state agencies have made things easier by adjusting some bureaucratic rules, and she and other advocates are pushing for policy changes within the state's General Assistance program to ensure that residents who do have homes will be able to stay. But with shelters, including hers, already full, Primm says her organization is being forced to look at other options to house or isolate them.

“We're actively trying to identify some empty buildings and spaces. Even a hotel that might be a possibility in the area, that might be able to be tapped into during this time for people that are needing a safe place to live.”

And beyond housing space, providers are also struggling to find enough help. Mark Swann, the executive director of Portland-based Preble Street, says the nonprofit is searching for new volunteers after seeing a dramatic decline in recent days.

“You know, we have soup kitchens. Three meals a day. We need a lot of volunteers. And losing so many so quickly is a challenge. And also, food drives. Last week, we had an annual food drive in partnership with a local company. And we went from 3200 pounds of food, which was donated last year, to 300 pounds this year.”

In an email, MaineHousing spokesperson Cara Courchesne says that the agency is "currently working with DHHS to help address the unique challenges homeless shelters across Maine are facing with the COVID-19 pandemic" and are pursuing a range of options.

DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew echoed that response at a press conference Wednesday, saying the effort is being shared with nonprofit organizations and city officials across the state.

“We are working with all of them to try to find pragmatic solutions that are public-privately done, to ensure that homeless individuals, like other residents in Maine, can stay safe.”

But advocates warn that more supports will have be put in place in the coming months , as layoffs and business closings could leave even more Mainers in need of social services.