Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter is run by students, who won’t be in Cambridge for the rest of the semester. (Photo: Harvard Square Homeless Shelter via Facebook)

Homeless people in Cambridge rank among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, but they have no place to practice “social distancing” to avoid illness or “self-isolation” to avoid infecting others. So far city officials trying to prevent the spread of Covid-19 have no answers to that problem, they said Monday.

It worries those who work with the homeless. On Friday, First Church shelter director Jim Stewart emailed City Manager Louis A. DePasquale asking him to order public health officials to find somewhere to house homeless people in quarantine. “If Cambridge fails to respond to this situation promptly, the health and well-being of all members of our community will be seriously compromised,” Stewart said in his message.

The need may come before there’s a solution. On Sunday night, a guest at the church shelter displayed worrisome symptoms, Stewart said by phone. He informed the man about services offered by Boston Health Care for the Homeless, which provides care at Boston and Cambridge shelters as well as its own facilities. “He seemed like he would have himself checked,” Stewart said.

If the guest turns out to be infected, he, the other men at the 14-bed shelter Sunday night and Stewart will have to self-isolate for 14 days, Stewart pointed out.

Shelter is about to close

Besides no place to be quarantined as a single person, there’s no place for homeless people to “congregate” and yet be at least 6 feet from others, the recommended social distancing space, he said. “It should have been on someone’s dashboard,” Stewart said.

Yet the dangers are, if anything, about to worsen: Local universities are sending students home for the rest of the semester, and it’s Harvard students who operate the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter in the basement of University Lutheran Church on Winthrop Street. “They’ve all been told they have to leave. So at the end of this week, the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter will likely close, and that’s about 25 beds,” said vice mayor Alanna Mallon, a board member. “That’s 25 people that will no longer have a place to stay every night.”

Cambridge Public Health Director Claude Jacob and City Manager Louis A. DePasquale were also questioned about the issue by councillor Marc McGovern, a social worker who has advocated for the homeless. “I’m getting asked about it quite a bit,” McGovern said.

Dorms, schools, youth centers empty

In search of a place where the homeless can have enough space around them to be safe from the airborne infection, officials have talked to Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about using the space emptied by sending students home, Jacob told city councillors. “Just know that while they’re still dealing with the – I’ll just call it the exodus, the students and whatnot – between Harvard and MIT, we don’t have a space today,” Jacob said.

Besides Harvard and MIT, the city has explored using its Armory near Fresh Pond in West Cambridge and “five or six other places,” DePasquale said. On Monday afternoon before the City Council meeting, “one of the property owners in the city offered to help,” Jacob said. The state has considered using hotels or motels, he said. No dice, but “it’s not from a lack of trying,” DePasquale said. They will keep trying, he said.

Jacob asked for suggestions, and McGovern obliged. The city can’t control Harvard, MIT and the Armory, he said. “We have a lot of empty schools right now. We have a lot of empty youth centers right now that we do control,” he said. “We should be looking in our own house for solutions as well.”