Homeless woman who spent time at shelter hospitalized after positive COVID-19 test

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Lauren Heiligenstadt, prior to the onset of her disability / courtesy photo

MANCHESTER, NH — Anyone who knows Lauren Heiligenstadt personally would not say she has had an easy life. She grew up in Long Island, NY, where her family currently resides. While she has traveled to Arizona and Virginia, she has spent the last few years in New Hampshire. She is now homeless and physically disabled as a result of a stroke which rendered her left arm and left hand inoperable. She is now bound to a wheelchair without a permanent residence and without transportation.

On Sunday, March 29, Lauren tells us she went to the Catholic Medical Center. She’d had difficulty breathing for a few days. She had even gone three weeks previous to this, but was escorted outside as she showed none of the normal symptoms. She believes she may have had the coronavirus the whole time. As someone in a wheelchair, she did not go anywhere else or do anything. She was at New Horizons the entire time, dating back to last fall.

At night, she felt as though she was going to die in her sleep. Her lungs filled up with fluid. She had a high fever. Mucus came out of her nose. Cough medicine proved ineffective. Nothing was going well.

“I knew it wasn’t the flu,” she said. “I knew it was different.”

During the day, while she was visibly struggling, Lauren says staff at the shelter kept their distance. She says was referred to the Healthcare for the Homeless Clinic for her condition. There, Lauren was told to go to her primary care physician — a challenge which proved difficult due to her transportation issues. With her condition worsening, and no efficacious remedy at hand, an ambulance was the only solution available to her.

Her boyfriend, a man named Robert, urged her to seek medical help. Lauren had to be convinced into accepting help. The staff at New Horizons had to be convinced by Robert to make the phone call, according to Lauren. While Lauren herself was drowning inside her own lungs.

“I think they’re trying to do the best they can,” Lauren stated, “But I think they’re overwhelmed with so many sick people.”

When reached for comment Tuesday, FIT/New Horizons Chief Strategy Officer Cathy Kuhn said she could not comment directly on the matter or confirm claims made by Lauren.

“We can’t comment on the health status of any client nor can we even confirm or deny that this person (or any other person) is a client at the shelter.  If there is ever a confirmed positive case of a person experiencing homelessness, we will work through the state DHHS shelter referral system to get them to a location for safe quarantine,” Kuhn said in an email.

Last week Kuhn talked about the need for more statewide resources for the homeless to contain inevitable spread of COVID-19, as shelters were filled to capacity. On Monday, WMUR reported that several homeless shelters around the state were preparing to close now that winter is over. Some clients were given sleeping bags and tents, and reminded to practice safe social distancing as they made their way out into the world.

“[The state is] doing the best they can implementing many of the guidance from the CDC and HUD  and implementing as many as we can to protect the population,” Kuhn said on March 26.  “Now we’re just working tirelessly to figure out what those next steps are.”

Kuhn also penned an op-ed piece written for Manchester Ink Link from her association with the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness, a  partner to shelter directors, advocacy groups and local and state officials toward solutions to protect the homeless.

During last week’s interview Kuhn confirmed that a request made to the state for the National Guard to be deployed to help man auxiliary shelter buildings in Manchester for the homeless was denied. Without staff, they cannot be set up.

On March 30 Gov. Sununu said during a news conference that he has requested major disaster declaration from the federal government. If approved, it would allow New Hampshire National Guard to be fully reimbursed if they are called upon during the crisis. Currently they are being used to set up “surge facilities,”  in Manchester, Nashua, Durham, Keene, Concord, Plymouth, Littleton and Lebanon, and were also working with the state’s hospitality industry to identify lodging for first responders, healthcare workers and those displaced by the crisis.

Using Guardsmen to man shelters was not mentioned by the governor.

As for Lauren, she doesn’t exactly know where she’s going after she’s released from the hospital. She doesn’t know if she’ll be let back in to the homeless shelter, or if she’ll have to go somewhere else. When asked whether sleeping outside would be an option, she said, “I don’t think I can do that.”

She has no plans to visit her family in Long Island, despite having three sons whose ages are 18, 14, and 10 respectively. Her family has become reticent to speak with her due to her history of drug use. She speaks with them only infrequently. She only knows that she’s not going back to the shelter right away.

She speaks about the next phase in her life with confidence, saying, “I’ll figure it out.”

Lauren has been homeless for a year and a half, and is currently in the process of receiving vouchers from Easter Seals. Once she receives them, she has to find a place on her own — a difficult proposition for someone in a wheelchair.


About this Author

Winter Trabex

Winter Trabex is a freelance writer from Manchester and regular contributor to Community Voices.