Maine homeless shelters prep for winter challenges amid pandemic

Staff members at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter and Portland’s Preble Street say colder weather and continued COVID-19 guidelines may cause problems this winter.

PORTLAND, Maine — For most of us, 2020 has been a tough year, but as the winter moves in, one population is perhaps more vulnerable to additional challenges — the homeless community. 

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness say this demographic hasn’t been particularly affected by the coronavirus directly, but COVID-19 social distancing guidelines may raise problems in the colder months. 

“The pandemic has definitely created a lot of challenges, so I think folks have been trying their best to provide shelter and services — but there have been a lot of things that have had to change,” Caitlin Corrigan, the health services director of Preble Street in Portland, expressed to NEWS CENTER Maine. 

RELATED: Portland to utilize Oxford Street Shelter, 2 hotel properties to increase shelter bed capacity this winter

Last week, Preble Street released a report that 64 people who had recently used their services passed away in 2020 — up by about 20 people compared to years past. The City of Portland has reported that 17 of those deaths involved people who were actively experiencing homelessness at the time. It’s why advocates are hoping to raise awareness this winter.

“We’ve just seen folks who are really struggling to connect to services,” Corrigan told NEWS CENTER Maine, regarding one of the biggest challenges they’ve experienced during the pandemic. Corrigan says those services include things like medical and mental health appointments, as well as spots in shelters. She says some people experiencing homelessness simply don’t have access to telehealth services — and social distancing has limited shelter capacity. 

“I think that (lack of connection) also influences what we talk about as ‘deaths of desperation’ — so, overdoses, suicides, people who aren’t feeling connected and (are feeling) that there isn’t any kind of hope to come,” Corrigan explained.

RELATED: New center will help improve lives of homeless families with children in Hancock County

Two hours away, the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter has been experiencing similar challenges and is working to adapt. Boyd Kronholm, the shelter’s executive director, says this year, they’ve had to cut back on shelter beds — from 40 to 32. People are required to quarantine until they test negative to stay there, and he says that has also slowed down the system a bit. 

At the beginning of November, the shelter opened its warming center, implementing physical changes like putting barriers in between people, serving 26 people at a time instead of 40, requiring people to wear masks, and asking coronavirus screening questions.

“We opened up our warming center again this year, and really, that whole first cold stack we had about three weeks ago — we’ve been full every night since,” Kronholm told NEWS CENTER Maine.

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That demand is an indication that this time of year, the homelessness epidemic may not be as visible to everyone — but those working in the midst of it say it is still there and shouldn’t be ignored. 

“Wintertime is one of the hardest times to connect with people who are experiencing homelessness because people are tucked away,” Zoe Brokos, a volunteer with the Maine People’s Housing Coalition, expressed. “They’re tenting; they’re in the woods; they’re staying on different couches. They’re just trying to survive.”

The Maine People’s Housing Coalition has been around for about a year. Jess Falero is the co-founder. She says it’s designed to give people experiencing homelessness a “seat at the table”. As someone who grew up in the foster care system, transitioned to a teen center and then moved to Florence House in Portland, Falero has first-hand experience — and systemic change is what she wants to see.

“Folks that are making decisions for people experiencing homelessness are making them without talking to them and without their input or say,” Falero said. 

“I think we’re all trying to do what we can do as best and most efficiently as we can, just knowing that there are going to be really tough times — and we’re going to have to observe people suffering,” Corrigan observed.

RELATED: Shelter opens in Lewiston area

Preble Street hosts a vigil annually on the winter solstice to remember people in its community who have passed away. This year, the vigil was virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic. You can view it here

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