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ROCKLAND, Maine — While the thought of quarantining inside for weeks on end might seem daunting, it’s relatively easy to commit to when you have a home.
But for those who are homeless or lack stable housing, the governor’s order to “shelter in place” during this pandemic is nearly impossible.
“Everyday, hearing the briefings [on coronavirus cases and deaths] and the intensity of the ‘stay-at-home’ mantra, it sent a shiver up my spine,” Director of Social Services for the Knox County Homeless Coalition Molly Feeney said.
Feeney thought: “OK, we’re trying — but not everyone has a home to stay in.”
While the focus of the Knox County Homeless Coalition is to find sustainable long-term housing for those struggling with housing insecurity along the midcoast, the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to act faster to provide people with a temporary safe place to isolate.
Enter the region’s hotels, motels and motor lodges, which have been idle for the better part of a month in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus by out-of-state travelers to Maine.
These businesses have long provided temporary beds for those who are homeless, especially in rural Maine where there is a lack of shelters. But with revenues tanking and hotel operators realizing their businesses could take a hit through the summer tourist season as the state works slowly to reopen, there was an added financial incentive for them to partner with the homeless coalition to fill rooms.
“It’s kind of been a beautiful thing because we can bring revenue to hotel owners who are starting to get worried about revenue and they can feel good about helping people,” Knox County Homeless Coalition Executive Director Stephanie Primm said.
The coalition declined to name its partner hotels out of privacy concerns for their clients, but said it has worked with Maine Housing, the state’s housing authority, as well as donors to pay for rooms for more than 100 people at various lodging facilities from Waldoboro to Belfast.
The Knox County Homeless Coalition works with about 400 clients annually who are struggling or have struggled with homelessness. In rural areas, homelessness is often overlooked because it doesn’t typically take shape in the way most people envision homelessness ― people packing into shelters or sleeping on benches in public areas.
Instead, it often goes unseen across the expanse of Maine’s rural landscape, as people couch surf with family and friends or sleep in their car without a stable place to call home.
Even before Maine had its first confirmed case of COVID-19, the coalition’s staff saw the writing on the wall and the challenges it would pose for them.
Caseworkers began taking an inventory of needs for each of their clients, figuring out where they were in terms of safe and stable housing, transportation, health, among other basic needs. The coalition also purchased cell phones and phone cards in bulk, anticipating they would need to have reliable communication with their clients.
“I think that was one of our best moves right from the beginning because I think clients who were maybe less engaged with us before all of this took comfort in knowing, ‘OK, I do have a safety net in place. I have a number I can call,’” Feeney said.
When trying to devise the best plan for housing vulnerable people during the governor’s stay-at-home order, staff realized that creating a shelter in a gymnasium or other congregate-type setting wasn’t the best option.
The Maine Center for Disease Control on Wednesday announced that an outbreak of COVID-19 has been detected at a homeless shelter in Bangor, where 21 people have tested positive for the virus.
Hotels afford people and families the space and privacy that would prevent a large scale outbreak from occurring. While none of the coalition’s clients have tested positive for the virus, the staff realize that housing homeless people in hotels is not viable forever.
“We don’t want to create the perception that this is a long-term solution,” Feeney said. “This is something that we’re doing because it’s our obligation to keep these families safe.”
While conversations are already occurring at the state level about the need for more affordable housing, Primm, who serves as chair of Maine’s Statewide Housing Council, hopes that the experience of having to place homeless people in temporary lodging to keep them safe from a pandemic accelerates the dialogue.
“We’ve got to start planning for what we all envision is the aftermath of this,” Primm said. “One of the silver linings that we’re hoping for is perhaps a greater appreciation for and a greater sensitivity to basic human needs and how very important they are.”
Watch: Nirav Shah talks about the outbreak at Hope House