Shelters filled to capacity across the state pose health risk to homeless  

The state denied the city's request to bring in National Guard to staff emergency homeless shelters.

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Social distancing is not happening outside the FIT/New Horizons Shelter. Photo/Pat Grossmith

MANCHESTER, NH — Shelter directors across the state are tirelessly working trying to protect the vulnerable homeless population but they are worried as COVID-19 continues to spread, according to Cathy Kuhn of the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness.

“They’re 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,” she said.  “Now we’re just working tirelessly to figure out what those next steps are.”

In an op-ed piece written for Manchester Ink Link Kuhn said 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 during the pandemic and protect against the spread of this virus.

She said any given day in New Hampshire there are, conservatively speaking, about 1,400 men, women and children sleeping on sidewalks, in tents, abandoned buildings and in places not meant for habitation.

Shelters statewide generally are filled to capacity, she said, and it is anticipated that as the virus continues to spread there will be a surge in the homeless population as “people find it harder and harder to double up and find places to live.”

Kuhn is the chief strategy officer at Families In Transition/NewHorizons which operates the city’s homeless shelter at 199 Manchester St. The shelter is usually filled to its 138-bed capacity people although the past few days saw a decline of about 10, she said.

There is no way the facility or any of the larger shelters across the state can practice the CDC recommended six-foot social distancing.  Some of the smaller shelters, she said, are able to quarantine or isolate one or two people needing protection.

The Manchester shelter is the state’s largest for adults.  What is needed here, she said, are four separate facilities.

One is needed to house about a dozen people who are medically compromised.  If they contract the virus Kuhn said it would have “very, very severe health consequences,” for them. They need to be taken out of the shelter and isolated, she said.

A second location is needed for those individuals who are symptomatic but who have not tested positive or will not be tested.  The third is a place to take individuals who have tested positive.

Clients of New Horizons wait outside before dinner hour on March 26, 2020. Photo/Pat Grossmith

“I think everyone recognizes if people test positive and are homeless the absolute worst thing we can do is put them back in the shelter,” Kuhn said. “It’s a matter of figuring out where do they go.”

The city has set up an alternative care site at the Stanley Spirou Field House on the campus of Southern New Hampshire University that Kuhn hopes to use for those from the homeless population who test positive for COVID-19. She said, “thankfully,” no one at the shelter has tested positive. CMC Healthcare for the Homeless Clinic is located in the same building as the shelter.  People who are symptomatic are referred to the clinic.

“They are amazing partners and we are so grateful for all they do,” she said.

The fourth facility is needed to spread out the population “to thin out the population in the shelter to increase social distancing as much as we can,” she said.

Kuhn said alternative sites have been identified in the city to house the homeless but what is needed is staffing and funding.  She said the city put in a request to the state asking the National Guard for help in staffing the facilities. That request, she said, was turned down.

Each facility needs at least two people per shift and ideally three.  More could be needed depending on the number of people and their individual needs.

New Horizons is now working with the state Emergency Operations Center to identify people willing to help out and also working with the city’s faith-based community.

“They have great capacity and a lot of people with the desire to give back and serve,” Kuhn said of the faith-based community.  “We are working with them to see what capacity there might be to staff one of these locations to help protect the homeless community from the virus.”

Each day, shelter directors have a daily call with state Bureau of Housing Support officials to obtain guidance from the state and to have a conversation about what is happening.”

“The reality is everybody is worried and everybody wants to know what we should be doing,” she said.  “What is the guidance from our state and local officials around this.   Conversations about this are being had at every level.”


This story was produced as part of the Granite State News Collaborative, of which Manchester Ink Link is a proud partner. Learn more here.