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What happens to the homeless in the age of coronavirus?

Boston’s homeless shelters brace for even tougher days as the bottom falls out for poor people.

Efforts at such places as the Pine Street Inn in Boston are multiplying to protect the homeless against the spread of the coronavirus.
Efforts at such places as the Pine Street Inn in Boston are multiplying to protect the homeless against the spread of the coronavirus.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file/2019

Larry Seamans is the head of FamilyAid Boston, an agency that offers housing — and, in normal times, hope — to homeless families.

And if one could summarize his greatest worry in this anxious time, it is that the people he serves will be rendered even more invisible than usual in the panic the coronavirus has wrought.

“Our families are in triple jeopardy,” Seamans said Tuesday. “They’re already on the edge, without a lot of resources. Two, they’re facing potential furloughs and the loss of work. Three, their kids are at home. These families have to work, but can’t work, because their kids are at home. We’ve kind of created this horrible perfect storm for families at the bottom end of the economic ladder.”

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At a time when everyone around us is facing challenges they didn’t foresee a few months ago, the city’s homeless find themselves in an especially vulnerable place. Even those who get off the streets and into shelters are in places where protective measures, including social distancing, are almost impossible to pull off.

Lyndia Downie sees the challenges they face, too, in her role running the Pine Street Inn. Places like Pine Street are a huge concern — again, because people live in close proximity, there’s little, if any, testing, and the chances that of an asymptomatic resident are high.

Downie told me the inn has instituted a number of changes to try to reduce the risk, including having people shower and eat in smaller groups than normal and encouraging guests to spread out across the building instead of congregating, by habit, in a couple of social spaces.

But who can say whether that’s enough?

“Honestly, our biggest concern at the moment is if someone has to be quarantined that we have sufficient quarantine capacity,” Downie said.

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Of course, that’s not the only issue. She’s also dealing with 700 residents a night whose anxiety is amplified by well-founded fears.

“I think the anxiety level is very high,” Downie said. “People know they don't have the same options as everyone else.”

There’s no magical solution to how to help the homeless during this crisis. Still, the response from the government has been scant. The state has encouraged child-care providers to stay open, as a means of helping low-income families who can’t afford other means of child care. But many are closing anyway as workers seek to isolate — presenting, Seamans said, one more obstacle for the economically unstable families.

The fact is, the coronavirus is teaching painful lessons about how deeply inequality divides us. The reason there are no easy answers is because the issues faced by poor people are so multifaceted.

Take school lunches, for example. The Boston Public Schools are providing two meals a day to students shut out of school. That’s commendable. But as public transportation slows to a crawl, traveling to get the free meals becomes one more issue to resolve.

It isn’t that people aren’t trying to help. The mayor has established a fund. So has the Boston Foundation, along with others. But as this crisis unfolds in real time, needy families are struggling every single day.

“The need for our families is in front of us right now,” Seamans said. “I think the good news is community organizations are starting to rally around. But they have yet to figure out the delivery mechanism.”

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This isn’t all dire. The efforts now being made to help needy people weather this storm will pay dividends when this crisis resolves. Downie noted, with relief, that the numbers of people in shelter haven’t increased yet. But that will likely change, as the tanking economy inflicts more pain on people who were barely hanging on.

“We are going to need every hand on deck going forward,” Downie said. “As it starts to evolve even more, it’s going to be a huge effort, despite the help of all our partners.”

Homeless people don’t get federal bailouts. And the coronavirus recession is landing hard on those who could least afford it.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.