This article was published in the Portland Press Herald on 07/03/2020 and is written by Giff Jamison, the Director of Programs at Tedford Housing.
As I write this in late June, we are entering our fifth month of the COVID-19 pandemic in Maine. Back in March, in response to the suddenness and increasing severity this national health crisis, Tedford Housing, like many other organizations serving people experiencing homelessness, began changing and adapting in order to adhere to the evolving social distancing guidelines and the Governor’s executive order to shelter safely at home. That month, to create more room in our shelter, we moved some guests into a motel. Our shelter, which traditionally had been closed between 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on weekdays, is now open 24/7. By late May, enough people had transitioned into housing to allow us to bring everyone safely back into the shelter again. Normally 16 beds, we are capping our current capacity at 10 individuals – doing intakes as beds empty and guests move into housing. Our family shelter continues to serve our regular number of six families in individual apartments in our facility at Federal St.
So far, Tedford has been lucky in not having a shelter guest or any of its staff members test positive for COVID-19. But here, as everywhere else, adjusting to the often referred to “new normal” is challenging for everyone involved. Our overarching goal has always been to help people who have experienced the trauma and destabilizing impact of homelessness become housed as soon as possible. Prior to March, there were already enough hurdles for our case managers to manage in finding suitable affordable housing. Matching resources and the limited supply of affordable housing to the diverse needs of people on their case loads meant hours of telephone calls, in-person viewing of apartments and layers of paperwork to finalize the issuance of a voucher and lease-up of an apartment. COVID-19 brought another dimension to that work. As Michelle Thiboutot, our adult shelter case manager, puts it: “COVID-19 has slowed the housing process down. From processing documents for housing to securing a unit.”
In addition to working with folks in our shelters, Tedford case managers work with those who are homeless and unsheltered in the community and those in their own apartments who have recently experienced homelessness. This outreach work has grown in importance as we work to not only restore housing to those that have lost it, but, through regular check-ins and visits, help people maintain their housing and avoid a return to homelessness. The changes in society brought about by the pandemic, the need to socially distance from others, to avoid gatherings, and the closing or reduced hours of places where people can socialize or congregate have had their impact on households served in outreach or our supportive housing programs. Michelle indicates: “some of my outreach clients are having a really hard time due to the isolation and COVID-19 restrictions.” Actual fear of becoming infected with the virus, coupled with the restriction in connecting with natural supports has taken its toll on some of our families as Beverly McPhail, our family case manager, points out: “Their biggest worry is that their children will be infected or will die from the coronavirus. They miss visiting face to face with their family members, their anxiety has increased substantially. Some families reported that they feel like they are buried alive and always worrying about the ever-looming coronavirus over their head. The loss of their freedom and the loss of everything that they used to do before coronavirus is devastating to them.”
Despite the hardships and loss encountered as a result of COVID-19, we have learned that we can still accomplish our mission to Empower people to move from homelessness to home and alleviate the interruption to a life caused by homelessness. In the coming week or so, two more people are moving into housing from our adult shelter. They are both persons who have experienced homelessness for long periods of time but have stuck it out at the shelter and through their patience and the diligence of their case manager have secured safe and affordable permanent housing. This event always provides a little shot in the arm for those of us in this field. With the uncertainty that this era generates in our personal and working lives, it is good to know that we can share in a small victory every once in a while. Some offer predictions of more to come in the way of COVID-19 in the upcoming fall and winter season. We, together with our partners in the community, will continue to adapt to the current conditions and, to the best of ability, continue our effort to house the most vulnerable in our community.