By NANCY WEST and PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
MANCHESTER – Fencing, port-a-toilets and hand-washing stations were installed at homeless encampments in Manchester on Tuesday as the state’s largest city grapples with trying to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“The State is financing (and coordinating the placements of) fencing and port-a-toilets at the homeless encampments, and is subcontracting with an organization for trash services,” said Lauren Smith, Mayor Joyce Craig’s chief of staff.
“The governor also recently signed off on a Justice Assistance Grant for the Manchester Police Department to provide 24/7 patrols of the areas to help keep the encampments and surrounding neighborhoods safe. All of this comes at no cost to the city.”
The work is being done in partnership with the state and the Manchester Emergency Operations Center, according to Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan in a letter to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
Goonan told aldermen that there has been heightened anxiety among people at the New Horizons homeless shelter and many shelter clients have begun to leave the facility. And they are moving to camps now that the weather is warming.
There has been no outbreak at the shelter, officials said. But two homeless people have tested positive for the virus, prompting fear among some.
“Last Saturday, we spoke to all residents in identified encampments and told them what to expect in the next few days (contracted cleaning, site adjustments, sanitary services being delivered, etc.) and that they should expect to see members of the MFD and MPD regularly,” Goonan said.
The people were told this was not an attempt to break up the camps but an enhancement for the temporary usage of these sites, Goonan said.
“One primary concern is that the (New Horizons) shelter is not designed to support social/physical distancing as required for adequate prevention of disease transmission. It is a congregate living facility that has the potential to become a disease cluster, much like we are seeing at Long Term Care Facilities,” Goonan said.
Goonan said the state has agreed to provide many of the services in the encampments on a temporary basis, assisting New Horizons with funding for food, working closely with the shelter to provide food distribution, manpower, cleaning and funding to develop the three-site plan and service the encampments.
“These new encampments are only temporary and will be dispersed once the CDC guidelines change as the Coronavirus situation slows,” Goonan said.
The Manchester Fire Department is also dispatching a COVID Response Unit to work with outreach workers, provide infection control and safety measures, and identify who and where the homeless came from that are currently in the encampments.
Goonan quoted CDC’s guidelines about homelessness amid COVID-19 states, “unless individual housing units are available, do not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
The Diocese of Manchester owns St. Casimir and is allowing it to house some homeless who were quarantined and chose to stay. Angie’s Place, a woman’s shelter, is also being used to assist with social distancing, he said.
“We are hopeful these options will help with infection control and encourage people back to the shelter. All three facilities should be up and operating by the end of this week,” Goonan said.
The state has opened a facility in Laconia to address some of the homeless quarantine issues, which has 20 beds for COVID positive clients. “This facility is available to support homeless people from Manchester that are positive with the Coronavirus,” he said.
“Last week, the Manchester EOC met with members of the State EOC, NH Department of Health and Human Services, Assistant Commissioner of Safety Perry Plummer and Fire Marshal Paul Parisi to discuss the encampment situation and plan for the increase of homelessness outside of the shelter. Many options were discussed including a single central site but based on CDC recommendations it was determined that keeping people in the encampments is the best course of action,” Goonan said.