As homeless in shelters see Covid-19 test results, a primitive tent camp arises in Alewife greenery
While the city was proudly announcing the opening of a temporary shelter for the homeless at the War Memorial Recreation Center last week – part of grappling with a Covid-19 pandemic – new problems arose involving the sizable community of people without homes in Cambridge. On Sunday, the Salvation Army learned that 21 of the 40 men staying at its shelter in Central Square had tested positive for the virus. And on Monday, volunteers who watch over the Alewife Brook Reservation wrote to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and a Department of Conservation and Recreation official warning that a large encampment of homeless people there is threatening public health and the environment and possibly exposing the occupants to the coronavirus.
City officials mentioned the Salvation Army outbreak briefly at a special City Council meeting Tuesday to hear reports about the response to Covid-19. Chief Public Health Officer Claude Jacob said that “while we were getting ready for the transition to the [War Memorial] field house, our public health nurses were in the midst of a of an outbreak at the Salvation Army. And so, on a dime, we had to pivot and get a better sense of what that was looking like.”
The timeline was challenging. On Thursday, 30 people at the city’s warming center were tested. On Friday, 40 guests at the Salvation Army got tests. On Sunday, tests began for 85 people at the 240 Albany St. shelter. All three sessions involved Pro EMS workers taking samples and the Broad Institute of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology analyzing them for the virus, Jacob said.
Infection rates showed a wide difference: five positive at the warming center, including two who weren’t staying there, for a rate of 17 percent; 13 of 85 at the Albany Street shelter positive, or 15 percent; and 21 positive at the Salvation Army, or 53 percent.
The relatively low rates at the warming center and Albany Street were “a pleasant surprise,” said Nancy Mahan, senior vice-president of services at Bay Cove Human Services, which runs the now-closed warming center and 240 Albany St. and is staffing the field house at the War Memorial.
Salvation Army alarm
Major Marcus Jugenheimer, general secretary of the Salvation Army Massachusetts Division, said the shelter had stopped accepting new residents on March 13 – a month before the outbreak. “We were practicing all the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendations,” when one guest started experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus on Wednesday. His test came back Friday: positive.
With the help of the city health department, the Salvation Army was able to get all its guests and staff tested that day, and received the results Sunday, Jugenheimer said. Besides the 21 who tested positive, two were presumed infected and are in quarantine, and five staff members had the virus, he said. The guests who tested positive were taken to hotels in the region set up by the state for homeless people who need to isolate. Those hotels are the Aloft in Lexington and the Envision in Everett.
Among the residents who were infected, none had symptoms except the first man who got sick, Jugenheimer said. Before the outbreak, “we feared the inevitability” of a guest becoming infected, he said.
At the Alewife Brook Reservation, a growing number of people are camped out on the south bank of the Little River just downstream of Perch Pond, Larry Childs and Kathy Johnson of the Friends of the Alewife Reservation board wrote to Siddiqui and Andy Backman of DCR.
“Some of the concerns include trash and human waste accumulation, disturbance to flora and wildlife, river bank erosion as well as campers’ potential exposure to the toxic river water and Covid-19,” their email message said. “Please let us know if we might assist you in any way to bring about a positive resolution to this significant management challenge facing the City of Cambridge and Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation,” it continued.
Childs said the number of tents had grown from two to six or seven in the past three weeks. “I have come up on piles of human excrement 2 feet high,” he said. The area is in a flood plain; “Everything will be swept [downstream] into the Mystic River” when it floods, he said.
The CDC advises against removing homeless encampments because it would scatter people into the community. It recommends providing toilets and handwashing resources and urging campers to set up their tents with a minimum 12 square feet of sleeping space for each person. Campers should get information about Covid-19 in their area,
“There’s a need for the city to step up,” Childs said. Cambridge could provide portable toilets similar to what it’s done at the Fresh Pond Reservation, where toilets aren’t available since the water treatment plant was closed, he said. Members of the organization, which is now part of the citywide Green Cambridge, will continue to monitor the situation, he said.
Cambridge spokesman Jeremy Warnick said Wednesday that questions should be directed to the state, which owns the reservation.
Coming and going
As for the War Memorial shelter, the city does not plan any more testing unless someone exhibits symptoms, and will not report cases among homeless people separately from the general count, public health chief Jacob said. Councillor Quinton Zondervan reiterated his concern that people in the shelter, though not admitted unless they had tested negative, could leave during the day and get infected by spending time with others who have the virus.
“These questions are coming from the community [within the shelter] themselves,” he said. Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. said shelter guests, like anyone else, had a right to go where they wanted.
The Salvation Army has locked down its shelter; if guests leave they won’t be allowed back in, Jugenheimer said. The census now is 20 people, half of the total before the outbreak. The organization is continuing to offer bagged meals or boxes of food to people in need, outside a separate building on its property, he said.
Jugenheimer said he would like to have regular testing for the shelter guests. But “it’s challenging enough for people to get one test,” he said. “A lot of people are waiting for a test.”