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UPDATED: December 29, 2020 at 3:15 p.m.
The City of Cambridge and local shelters have tailored their services to try to support the city’s homeless population during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is extending into the frosty months of winter.
The global health crisis has presented new challenges for individuals experiencing homelessness in the Cambridge area, including barriers toward accessing existing services. Many of those individuals must confront two dangerous options: stay in a communal shelter and risk contracting the virus, or live outdoors, at the mercy of a Massachusetts winter.
To deal with those difficulties, local shelter coordinators and city officials alike have tried to adapt and keep up with the pressing needs of Cambridge residents experiencing homelessness.
Y2Y Harvard Square, a youth homeless shelter usually staffed by Harvard students, implemented a series of changes to its operations in light of the health crisis, according to Asjah Monroe, the shelter’s program manager.
Since the start of the pandemic, Monroe said the shelter reduced its maximum capacity to 22 guests — down from 27 — to comply with social distancing guidelines. The shelter has also implemented an “indefinite stay” policy for guests — a departure from its previous 30-day lottery system for beds.
“Now when someone gets a bed with us, they have it until they don’t need it anymore,” Monroe said. “We didn’t want to turn people out into the streets, if you will, during Covid.”
Monroe also said there have been zero cases of coronavirus among guests at Y2Y. To promote safety at the shelter and help match guests with proper resources, Y2Y directs individuals who display Covid-19 symptoms when checking into the shelter to nearby testing sites. Earlier in the pandemic, Y2Y collaborated with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, which set up a testing site to offer free COVID-19 tests to Y2Y guests.
Despite Y2Y’s success at mitigating the spread of the coronavirus among its guests, individuals who stay in shelters are especially vulnerable to contracting the virus, according to David G. Munson, the Medical Director of Respite Programs at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.
Munson said shelters are not conducive to social distancing since “upwards of 300” people might live in one facility. Further, Munson said shelters lack sufficient space for individuals exposed to the coronavirus to self-isolate, therefore putting other guests at risk.
Munson said shelters in Cambridge and the greater Boston area have struggled to curb coronavirus transmission.
“In sort of the peak of things in early April, we had about 40 percent of the guests of the large shelters in the city had tested positive for Covid at one time, which was pretty striking,” he said.
Harvard students circulated an online petition in the spring calling for the University to use its vacated dorms as emergency shelter space for homeless individuals in Cambridge. The University ultimately pledged $250,000 along with a matching donation from MIT to help fund an emergency shelter opened by the City of Cambridge.
The city has set in motion a series of initiatives to help people experiencing homelessness weather the coronavirus pandemic. Those include launching an emergency shelter, offering free coronavirus testing at local sites, installing public showers in Harvard Square, and opening an annual warming center at reduced capacity.
Still, fewer homeless people in Cambridge will have access to shelters this winter. As the pandemic rages, Cambridge’s homeless shelters are offering roughly 60 fewer beds in total than usual, according to according to Mark. T. McGovern, director of Cambridge Health Alliance’s Healthcare for the Homeless Program.
While Y2Y reduced its maximum capacity, student-run Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, for example, did not open at all at the start of the winter season due to health concerns.
For individuals unable to live in shelters, the closure of local businesses and indoor public spaces due to Covid-19 poses additional hurdles during the months of winter.
“The lack of indoor daytime space is going to really be tough this winter,” McGovern said. “People can’t go to the library anymore. People can’t go inside and hang out in Dunkin Donuts to get warm.”
Though the cold months ahead will pose further challenges for Cambridge’s homeless population, McGovern said he believes no one in Cambridge experiencing homelessness has died from the coronavirus.
“I've been so inspired by the way people have really pitched in, in the shelter community, to be able to protect one another,” McGovern said.
CORRECTION: December 24, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Mark T. McGovern directs the Cambridge Health Alliance. In fact, McGovern serves as director of the Cambridge Health Alliance’s Healthcare for the Homeless Program.
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