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Natalie has been homeless and staying in Boston shelters for about a year and a half. During that time, she's worked with case managers to find an apartment. But that search has become much harder since the coronavirus started spreading.
"Especially with the stigma on homeless people and people not wanting to rent, you know, and being afraid that the homeless people are going to bring in COVID," she says.
Natalie wants to use only her first name because, she says, she's a victim of domestic violence and has safety concerns.
She describes one recent experience with staff at a building that rents out rooms.
"[I] verified they had rooms, verified that they were available ... I did not tell them, though, that I was homeless," she says. "As soon as they found out I was homeless, all of a sudden there's no rooms available. And not only is there no rooms, but I'm number 347 on a waiting list."
Several factors have strained efforts to house people during the pandemic, according to city officials. Shelter employees who normally help people find housing have instead been asked to staff temporary shelters to help with social distancing in the main facilities. Turn-over of apartments owned by private landlords who accept rental assistance vouchers is happening at a slower pace than normal. Affordable housing developments closed their offices.
New protocols on how to safely show housing units had to be developed, and that's just now picking up, according to Laila Bernstein, deputy director of Boston's supportive housing division.
"Since the week of March 13, we've, as a community, housed 25 people experiencing chronic homelessness," Bernstein says. "This is not as fast as we were housing people before, but it's amazing that that has been able to happen during this time of crisis."
City data show that in the same time period last year, Boston placed more than three times as many adults who were chronically homeless — 83 — into permanent housing with support services. During the same period in 2018, 71 adults experiencing chronic homelessness were housed.
For the last several years, the city and its nonprofit partners prioritized housing people who've been homeless for a long time. Because of COVID-19, Bernstein says, they've shifted their approach.
"We now are focused on clients who are at most risk of the of the disease and really bad outcomes, but this includes some of the same people we were focused on before," she explains.
In total since the beginning of March, Boston has housed more than 175 unaccompanied adults, which includes people homeless for short periods.
'We Can Stabilize The Homeless Community'
Meanwhile, in Worcester, city leaders say the pandemic has led to a model approach to get people into housing.
Early on, they spread out the homeless population into several satellite shelters at schools and churches. Numerous city departments and local organizations came in to offer services. The school department provided nurses and food. UMass Memorial Medical Center provided addiction treatment and telehealth appointments, including sessions for mental illness.
The so-called "healthy homeless shelters" (one of which remains open at North High School, with about 22 people staying there) had TVs, games, even yoga classes. City leaders say because of all of this, people wanted to be there, and they got more comprehensive attention.
"It was fabulous to see that if we could all work together, we can stabilize the homeless community, we could get them into housing in a much faster and much easier way where they're part of the process, and they want to do this," says Dr. Mattie Castiel, Worcester's Health and Human Services commissioner.
Since April 19, Worcester has placed close to 30 adults. They moved into permanent apartments, single-room units, seasonal mobile homes and family members' houses. Several went into residential addiction treatment that will lead to permanent housing.
'We Need Help ... We Need More Housing'
And the coronavirus hasn't only pushed providers into action.
"It has motivated people to get out of the shelter because they don't want to be in a space where they are at risk," says Taylor DeSanty, re-housing manager for Father Bill's Place, the adult emergency homeless shelter in Quincy.
DeSanty says it's not that people weren't motivated before, but many of them had other life stresses that took precedence over finding housing.
For others, the pandemic has exacerbated issues including substance use disorders and mental illness — and those have become barriers to housing, she says.
This year, from March 1 through June 4, Father Bill's & MainSpring, which also runs a shelter in Brockton, placed 54 adults in permanent housing with support services. Last year during the same time, the organization housed more than twice as many — 124.
DeSanty says the current crisis has highlighted why dramatic change is needed to tackle homelessness.
"We cannot continue to put people in this kind of warehouse model where people are on top of each other," she says. "We need help. It's not that we need a larger shelter ... We need more housing. We need more affordable housing. We need more permanent supportive housing."
Father Bill's & MainSpring placed six men into a new permanent supportive housing building in Brockton on June 1. The organization acquired and rehabbed the distressed property with help from the city, finishing the project and selecting residents during the pandemic. The two apartments in the building are among more than 550 permanent supportive housing units the nonprofit operates. [It posted a video of the tenants moving in.
51-year-old Ed Alger is one of the building's new residents. He was homeless for a couple of years after the death of his mother, whom he took care of, led to emotional and financial difficulties. He's in recovery from addiction and has anxiety and depression.
Alger says he was always worried about who might have the coronavirus while he was in shelter during the pandemic, and his anxiety was "off the wall." Getting his own place has changed that.
"It's taken away a lot of my anxiety, and actually it is making me calm," he says. "I know that I'm around people I can trust."
Alger is one of the lucky ones. There are still about 175 people in Father Bill's & MainSpring shelters with no other place to go.
This segment aired on June 12, 2020.
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