New Horizons Shelter: ‘Our resources are stretched thin, but I believe in the collective heart of our citizens and our leaders’

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Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.

Right now, all of New Hampshire’s approximately 40 homeless shelters report being at capacity with long waiting lists for entry. Given the sudden and unexpected challenges we all face as a state community, these shelters face uniquely precarious new challenges. Our homeless facilities are built to handle this population as a group, which means our participants share space for every service we provide, whether that’s meals, sleeping quarters, restroom facilities and so on.

Conservative estimates suggest that each night almost 1,400 men, women and children sleep in one of our shelters, or they experience unsheltered homelessness sleeping on sidewalks, in tents, abandoned buildings or other places not meant for human habitation. Many more are precariously housed, sleeping on couches or on floors in the homes of friends or families. This is a transient population who are not only at increased risk of contracting COVID-19, but are also at the greatest risk of experiencing severe health consequences as a result.

The New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness is partnering with shelter directors, advocacy groups and local and state officials to seek solutions, best practices and ideas for how to navigate this pandemic and protect against the spread of this virus.

Our immediate challenge is this: complying with CDC recommendations such as social distancing, isolation and quarantine is impossible for people experiencing homelessness. While some smaller shelters may have 1 or 2 spaces available for some sort of isolation, most shelters simply do not have the extra space availability to appropriately isolate those who may be highly vulnerable or symptomatic and awaiting test results.

Shelters basically need at least four separated spaces to prevent COVID-19 from spreading quickly through our population of participants:

A space for those who have no signs of the virus

A space for those who are medically vulnerable and need to be separated from others

A space for those showing symptoms and not feeling well but haven’t been tested

A space for those who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

In addition, like so many other businesses and non-profit service agencies, COVID-19 has created extreme staffing challenges in many of NH emergency shelters. We have some staff in quarantine, we have others who face child care issues that prevent them from being able to report to work in person. We are struggling. Keeping the doors open to continue to serve those most vulnerable in this extreme time of need becomes harder by the day.

At the local level, all of our state’s shelters have been partnering with municipal and state officials and nonprofit partners to identify isolation locations and develop plans for staffing these extra facilities. We deeply appreciate the Governor, city and town leaders for keeping us in mind for their plans and protocols when the surge of cases hits. We celebrate the opening of a new overflow facility for patients at SNHU, which we hope to be able to utilize if any of our participants test positive for COVID-19.
We also thank the Governor for organizing efforts to seek volunteers to help various non-profits like our shelters. This is exactly the type of help we seek. For example, in Manchester, we have located spaces to separate our population, but we need volunteers for the 24/7 staffing requirements to make them a reality.

Fortunately, none of this is permanent. We have the ideas, we just need the human resources, supplies and space. If we don’t act with purpose and clarity, our chief concern is the loss of life and the prolonged extension of social distancing. Our state has a long history of stepping up to help those in need. Our resources are stretched thin, but I believe in the collective heart of our citizens and our leaders. Please consider helping us care for those among us who have no other options for remaining safe.

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Cathy Kuhn is director of the FIT/New Horizons shelter and serves as Director of the NH Coalition to End Homelessness.