PORTLAND, Maine — Officials announced Wednesday that Portland would temporarily close its city shelter to new individuals after two people tested positive for the coronavirus, while allowing more than 600 people on a waiting list at city shelters to remain eligible for city services.
Maine’s largest city has begun to respond to the virus in its homeless shelters, but is struggling with a lack of staffing and has reported having difficulty conveying the severity of the pandemic to members of its community of people experiencing homelessness.
Oxford Street Shelter director Sara Fleurant was at the Expo on Wednesday morning when a male “aggressively coughed in her face,” said City Manager Jon Jennings. The man has been arrested and will be prosecuted if Fleurant tests positive for COVID-19 and requires quarantine.
“That’s the kind of chaos we’re dealing with, in many ways, with some of the folks who are over at the Expo,” the city manager said.
Staffing levels at city shelters have been depleted as several people have called out of work to protect their own safety and their families. Jennings said he did not blame them. The city said 98 people stayed at the Oxford Street shelter on Tuesday night, and was discussing offering a “COVID bonus” for shelter workers.
Oxford Street’s newly imposed criteria prohibiting new individuals is unrelated to residency or duration. Neither Portland residents or people from outside the city who are not on the current list of 608 will be admitted to the city shelter.
Jennings said the situation is temporary, adding that he expected “some of the nonsense that we have seen over the years from advocates and others” who will interpret the move as Portland “rolling back its 30-year commitment to the homeless.”
“That is nothing that we are saying we are doing,” he said. “I stress that this is a temporary situation due to a pandemic.”
The city opened a 50-bed temporary quarantine shelter at the Expo this week for people who officials have determined have come into contact with others who have tested positive for the virus. The shelter will be staffed around the clock and may have police presence, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said, and 38 people stayed there overnight on Tuesday.
People who are showing symptoms, awaiting test results or who have tested positive will stay in private apartment units in the family shelter on Chestnut Street.
Watch: How does COVID-19 spread?