A coronavirus outbreak at Portland's Oxford Street Shelter has spread to 24 guests and 8 staff members since last week. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — The coronavirus outbreak connected to the city’s homeless shelter has now infected 24 guests and eight staff members.

Cases have more than doubled there since Jan. 26 when Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention opened an outbreak investigation at Oxford Street Shelter, the overnight shelter in the Bayside neighborhood for people experiencing homelessness.

A man who has frequented the shelter in recent weeks said it is still too crowded during the pandemic, even though it has cut capacity to keep people from becoming infected. 

“There is no social distance” at the shelter, said the man, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. “And people are getting sick.”

The man — who is currently in quarantine and awaiting test results for the coronavirus — provided images to the BDN of mattresses closely arranged on the second-floor eaves of the shelter. He called on city officials to be more accountable. 

“You can clearly see that most of the mats are less than 5 feet apart,” he said. “On the floor, where they have six mattresses, they should probably have two.” 

City spokesperson Jessica Grondin said the mats in the images are down but shelter staff does not assign a person to each mat. 

“Anyone who has been into Oxford Street Shelter would understand we have no storage so when capacity was reduced we simply stopped assigning a person to each mat but have no magical place to hide mats,” Grondin said. “It’s why we’ve been working towards a new Homeless Services Center to improve guest experience.”    

Sleeping mats lined up on the second floor of the Oxford Street Shelter in October, 2020, according to an individual who shared them with the Bangor Daily News. A coronavirus outbreak at the shelter has infected 24 guests and 8 staff members in the last week. Courtesy of anonymous source Credit: Courtesy of anonymous source

The city has advised that people sleep head-to-toe at Oxford Street as a social distancing measure. But that plan doesn’t always work.

“At the end of the day, you don’t want your head to sit next to someone else’s feet,” the shelter guest said.

As he sees it, most Oxford Street staff “aren’t equipped to deal with somebody with mental health issues,” and are unable to convey necessary information about social distance guidelines related to the pandemic. That dynamic has escalated conflicts that have led to shelter restrictions. 

Sleeping mats lined up on the second floor of the Oxford Street Shelter in October, 2020, according to an individual who shared them with the Bangor Daily News. A coronavirus outbreak at the shelter has infected 24 guests and 8 staff members in the last week. Courtesy of anonymous source Credit: Courtesy of anonymous source

Social services staff have had “roughly 30 recent trainings — which include trainings related to substance-use disorders, mental health and diversity and inclusion,” Grondin said. 

The city has operated its overnight shelter at Oxford Street at half capacity during the coronavirus pandemic, maintaining sleeping mats for 74. 

In November, the city reported that the shelter was at capacity and was housing additional guests in a spillover shelter at an area hotel. Forty-four people stayed at the shelter the night of Jan. 26. Sixteen stayed Wednesday night.

Along with the outbreak at that shelter, Portland officials are managing outbreaks among guests at the Family Shelter, a facility for unhoused families, and the Barron Center, a long-term care facility for older adults. The BDN reported that thirteen residents at the Barron Center died from COVID-19 in recent weeks.

Many staff have worked “around the clock” to address issues and make contingency plans for residents and city staff, Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said. 

“The current conditions of COVID-19 are impacting our city and staff in great ways, and we’re doing everything we can to manage staff who have been affected by the recent surge in the virus,” he said. 

In the past two years, the city has increased the number of criminal trespass orders, which ban guests from staying at the Oxford Street Shelter for one year. Eighty-three people were serving one-year restrictions from the shelter in December, according to city data. In November 2019, city officials attributed the spike to behavioral issues related to a spike in methamphetamine use in the region.

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness in Portland cited the potential for an outbreak at the shelter as a reason why they’ve pushed city officials to increase shelter options over the past year.

City officials have juggled potential options for emergency homeless shelters during the pandemic, with at least two falling through. The city has been sheltering roughly 400 people nightly in area hotels using funding from coronavirus relief grants.

Oxford Street Shelter guests who have tested positive and close contacts awaiting test results are quarantined in area hotels.

In January, the city’s housing and economic development committee drafted a request for proposals seeking private-sector developers to build a 200-guest-capacity shelter with wraparound services at 654 Riverside St.