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The Hope House shelter in Bangor will keep searching for a place to house some residents off-site in order to comply with social distancing guidelines after city officials said it could not use a local university’s gymnasium because it lacked a sprinkler system.
Last week, the University of Maine System told the shelter it could set up extra beds inside the gymnasium at the University of Maine at Augusta’s Bangor campus for free, according to spokesman Dan Demeritt.
The additional space would allow residents currently staying at the 54-bed shelter on Corporate Drive to sleep farther apart, reducing their risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus and in accordance with public health guidance.
As of Friday, no shelter residents in Bangor had tested positive for the virus, though the homeless population is more vulnerable to infection than the general public. That’s because they are more likely to live in cramped spaces and less likely to have a way to stay clean. Once sick, they are more likely to die because of underlying health conditions and lack of access to medical care.
But the plan hit a snag on Friday when city inspectors said the gymnasium’s lack of sprinklers would violate life safety codes, said Bangor Fire Chief Tom Higgins. The change in use, from a gymnasium to a place where people sleep overnight, requires a sprinkler system and would be unsafe without one, he said.
The Hope House hoped an exception would be made if it provided 24/7 staffing at the temporary shelter, said Lori Dwyer, president of Penobscot Community Health Care, which runs the Hope House.
But the city doesn’t make exceptions for life safety codes, the fire chief said.
“The city’s code enforcement group will be happy to evaluate any other alternatives brought forward as quickly as possible,” Higgins said.
The city has already approved the Columbia Street Baptist Church as a place for up to 20 shelter residents to sleep in the event they test positive for the virus and need to be housed separately. The Bangor Area Homeless Shelter on Main Street reduced its overall capacity to achieve the recommended 6 feet of distance between sleeping cots.
In the meantime, the Hope House will continue “working around the clock with the state, community partners, and private individuals to find other viable options for temporary shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness,” said Dwyer, with Penobscot Community Health Care.
It’s unclear what other options are being considered outside of the gymnasium.
Demeritt, with UMaine, said the university system would work with local officials to adapt the gymnasium to comply with life safety codes, but understands if that’s not possible without sprinklers.
The university’s offer was part of a larger collaboration between state institutions to help local shelters protect their residents from COVID-19 infections by offering overflow space.
Portland, where at least two shelter residents have tested positive for the virus, and Presque Isle have created temporary shelters in university buildings, with help from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine State Housing Authority, and the Maine Emergency Management Agency.
Also on Friday, public health officials announced that community transmission has been detected in Penobscot County, meaning the virus is now spreading among residents of the region. It is the third Maine county to report community spread, after Cumberland and York counties.
Watch: Why the Maine CDC breaks down coronavirus cases by county, not town