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At a time when everyone is advised to stay at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, those without a home have fewer places to go than ever.
On Wednesday morning, a group of four young people without homes were walking past businesses on Bangor’s Main Street, looking for a place where they could seek refuge from the cold. They considered walking to Dunkin’ to get coffee, but knew they would not be able to go inside.
Often, people without fixed addresses in Bangor spend cold days visiting different coffee shops on Main Street or sheltering from the elements at the Bangor Public Library.
However, with downtown businesses shutting down, the library temporarily closed and many chains operating drive-through service only, options for people without homes are more limited than ever as the city tries to keep large groups from assembling in the interest of public health. Options are more limited at night, too, with Monday’s closure of the overnight warming center at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter and the closure of the Bangor Police Department lobby for overnight stays.
Those closures hit especially hard a population that’s already at double the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus than others. Medical researchers point out that the virus can spread easily among the nation’s homeless population because of cramped quarters at shelters, sharing of utensils and other belongings and the lack of hand-washing stations outside, The New York Times has reported.
“Right now we can’t go to any of the restaurants because they’re closed except for the drive-throughs,” said Lauren Holmes. “And they won’t even serve us because we don’t have cars.”
For two months before the warming center closed, Holmes spent her nights using the chairs there to get some sleep. Now, she’s living in a tent pitched under the Interstate 395 bridge behind Geaghan’s Pub on Main Street.
“Now you got a tent city under the bridge,” said her friend Charles Richards. “That’s coming back now.”
In addition to closing the warming center, the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter is not accepting any new people right now, but it has not asked anyone to leave, according to Director Boyd Kronholm. It is trying to reduce the number of people staying there currently from 32 to about 24. People without homes are about twice as vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus
“Everyone’s doing something to reduce population density,” Kronholm said.
The homeless shelter has split its meal shifts into two groups of 16, and it has opened up the entire shelter — including the daytime area and the rooms with beds — so people can scatter and not have to be closely packed together.
Two people at the shelter were tested for the coronavirus and were quarantined inside the shelter, Kronholm said, but their tests came back negative. The shelter has since increased the capacity so it’s able to quarantine more people if that becomes necessary.
Although many restaurants are closed, homeless shelter residents are still getting cooked meals inside the premises. For people who are not inside the shelter, Hope for Homeless and the Salvation Army are offering bag lunches for pick-up, and the Brick Church is offering a dinnertime meal in the same manner, Kronholm said.
The shelter has also asked residents to limit their time outside, especially with people who are not living on the same premises to reduce the chances that a shelter resident is exposed to the coronavirus.
“We don’t necessarily want them going to any of the encampments, hanging out and then coming back,” Kronholm said, “because that defeats the purpose.”
However, to people like Richards, who has a bed at the shelter, this is an additional restriction at a time when he and his friends have so few options.
Originally from Florida, Richards and another friend who is staying at the shelter spent Wednesday morning hanging out with two other friends, including Holmes, who were living in tents.
“Everything is so limited around here right now,” Richards said. “It is really hard for people like us to get any resources right now because of the shutdown.”
Kronholm says he’s aware that there are limited places where Bangor’s homeless population — regardless of whether they have a bed at the shelter — can go to spend the day right now.
“All the places that they used to be able to piece their day together with have shut down due to the coronavirus,” he said. “They really have no place to be.”
Watch: Symptoms of the coronavirus disease