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Nonprofits Collaborate With State To Help Homeless Population During Pandemic

A man and a woman stand in front of a white van.
Liam Elder-Connors
Anna Lisa Reynolds and Lincoln Heath, with the Community Health Centers of Burlington, stand with the outreach testing van. The initiative provides COVID-19 testing to homeless and other vulnerable populations.

Homeless shelters are a place where it’s nearly impossible to practice social and physical distancing. Sleeping quarters are often cramped, and shared bathrooms and kitchens can increase the chance of an outbreak spreading quickly.

In Vermont, a patchwork of state government, nonprofits and health care organizations are trying to help, and that includes sheltering people in motels.

Lyzzie and her family are among the more than 1,800 people that the state moved from a homeless shelters to motel rooms. As a family of four, with a 3-year-old and a 3-week-old, Lyzzie said it can be a little overwhelming at times.

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“Especially since the newborn that I have actually has issues with his kidney, so having to go back and forth to the hospital and all that stuff has been kind of complicated,” she said.

VPR is only using Lyzzie's first name. Lyzzie, who’s 27, said one of the hardest things is not having a kitchen.

"Having nutritious meals for a 3-year-old and a whole family is a little more difficult. Basically, like a lot of microwavable dinners is kind of where we’re at." — Lyzzie

“Having nutritious meals for a 3-year-old and a whole family is a little more difficult,” she said. “Basically  like a lot of microwavable dinners is kind of where we’re at.”

Lyzzie said her family doesn’t have a stable source of income due to the pandemic. Her fiancé, an independent contractor, was laid off, and the call center she worked for moved most of its operations out-of-state.

But Lyzzie said the nonprofit Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS), has helped, and they’re doing okay. Still, she said living at a motel hasn’t been easy.

“Other people, they get to quarantine at home, right — that’s your comfort place,” she said. “I mean, there’s a whole bunch of homeless people with kids they are not quarantining in a place they aren’t completely comfortable. In my situation, I’ve got a 3-year-old. I have to keep him busy somehow in a place we’re not really familiar with.”

A hotel lobby sign with posters on the doors saying "do not enter."
Credit Brian Pine, Courtesy
The Holiday Inn in South Burlington is housing those experiencing homelessness and testing positive for COVID-19.

In the early days of the pandemic, the state moved quickly to house just over 1,800 peopleexperiencing homelessness, including 257 children, at motels around the state.

Rita Markley, executive director of COTS, said when the crisis began in March, shelters were full.

“They’re tightly packed, all the bathrooms are shared, and it’s just not even remotely possible to keep people safe in that kind of setting,” she said.

Markley added that shelters like ones run by COTS are still open, but with fewer people in them. They also follow strict social distancing guidelines and screen staff and residents for symptoms of COVID-19.

In other parts of the country, homeless shelters have been hit by outbreaks.

At one shelter in San Francisco, case numbers jumped from five to 70 in three days. In Boston, testing indicates nearly a third of the city’s homeless population is infected. Officials thereannounced this week they’d test all shelter residents in the city.

But for now, Vermont seems to have avoided outbreaks among its homeless residents, which Markley credits in part to the state’s swift action. Besides the motel voucher program, the state has worked to expand its ability to care for people.

A woman and man in face masks.
Credit CHCB, Courtesy
Anna Lisa Reynolds and Lincoln Heath at a testing site with the outreach van.

In the parking lot of the Community Health Centers of Burlington’s South End office, Lincoln Heath and Anna Lisa Reynolds opened the back doors to a white van. On each side of the vehicle, there was a square blue and white magnet that read "outreach testing."

“They just came yesterday — looks pretty sweet, doesn’t it?” Reynolds said, pointing to the magnets.

Reynolds is a nurse at CHCB, and Heath is a doctor there. The outreach testing van is a relatively new initiative to provide COVID-19 testing to homeless and other vulnerable populations.

Heath said it’s a pretty barebones setup: “Got a couple coolers for collecting our tests, we’ve got our box with all our PPE in it here, we’ve got an awning we set up last week because it was raining."

Right now, the van is only operating in Chittenden County, and patients still need a referral to get tested.

Reynolds said before this, the only places to get tested were emergency rooms or one of the state’s drive-up sites.

“There are barriers with transportation in terms of people getting tested, and the mobile unit has allowed folks in the homeless community, and as well as folks who don’t have transportation, to get tested, so it’s reducing the barriers,” she said.

The van, which is on loan from the Champlain Housing Trust, is an offshoot of the state health department’s South Hero testing site that the clinic staffs.

"There are barriers with transportation in terms of people getting tested, and the mobile unit has allowed folks in the homeless community, and as well as folks who don't have transportation, to get tested."— Anna Lisa Reynolds, Community Health Centers of Burlington

The collaboration of state and nonprofits has become a frequent occurrence during this crisis.

For example, the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity and the state’s Agency of Human Services set up an isolation site at the Holiday Inn in South Burlington.

CVOEO operations director Liz Curry said a lot of the work is coordinating care.

“We make sure that they are set up for a successful and relaxing recovery,” she said. “So that we make sure they have the appointments they need with their medical and mental health providers.”

Since the Holiday Inn site opened on April 13, only four people have stayed there, though they’re expecting two more this week, according to site director Brian Pine.

Two people in masks and protective suits talk.
Credit Courtesy of Liz Curry, Courtesy
Staff at the recovery center at the Holiday Inn in South Burlington.

The recovery center is expected to operate for at least three months, though Pine said that could change. Similarly, the outreach testing van plans to operate for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

But the governor's stay-at-home order is set to expire on May 15, and it’s unclear how long people will be sheltered at the motels and what will happen when they leave. The Department of Children and Families is supposed to address the issue with lawmakers this week.

Meanwhile, housing advocates have asked the state to use funds from the $1.25 billion dollar federal relief package to fund permanent housing.

For Lyzzie, who’s living in a motel with her family, the uncertainty is tiring. They’ve already moved to several different hotels in the last month and a half. She’s hoping her family will get a voucher for an apartment, but if not, she expects they’d return to the shelter.

“This is like one of the crappy parts right?" she said. "We never know what’s going to happen until the day it happens."

Find a list of FAQs about the new coronavirus, plus resources, here.

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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