Karen LaFrazia is pelted with questions as soon as she hits the lobby of St. Francis House, one of Boston’s largest daytime shelters for the homeless.
A man with a limp asks for a cane. Another person requests a walker. A long lunch line starts to snake past the reception desk. Then a shelter worker pulls her aside with another issue: with the finance team self-isolating at home, how can the agency disburse stipends for the workforce development program?
“I don’t think it will come to this, but I’ll dip into my own bank account to get the money if I have to,” LaFrazia, the president of St. Francis House, said later.
This is life inside a busy Boston shelter in the time of the coronavirus, a global pandemic that has upended the city’s social service safety net.
On a typical day, about 500 people pass through the 10-story building on Boylston Street that serves as the agency’s main shelter and headquarters. Some need a hot meal or a shower. Some come for appointments with case managers who help them navigate the bumpy path out of a life of sleeping in shelters. But the threat of COVID-19 has altered nearly every routine.
Shelter providers and their clients are now rushing to adapt to new norms: limited services, wide-scale cleanings, and medical screening to prevent the virus from spreading among an especially vulnerable population.
As the crisis unfolds, some operators say they’re worried about the future, and how the economic downturn could increase the need for their services, overwhelm their capacity, and potentially burst their budgets.
“We’re not there yet, but we have contingency plans on top of contingency plans," LaFrazia said. “This situation is just impossible to predict. None of us have seen anything like it.”
On Monday, hundreds crowded into cramped rooms at the Boylston Street shelter, making social distancing an impossibility. Some people used outlets to charge electronic devices, while others slept or sat in silence at communal tables.
Ed Coppinger, a 56-year-old retired state transportation worker, knows his anemia and leukemia make his immune system weak and especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. But he can’t avoid crowds; he relies on emergency facilities for shelter.
“My only other choice is to walk around all day and night," he said, tears streaming down his cheeks. “I’m in fear for my life.”
Behind him, a cleaning crew roamed the facility, wiping down door handles, counters, and other surfaces with disinfectant. About half of the agency’s 113 staffers are working from home, and clothing distribution has been limited to emergencies. Meanwhile, housing services and workforce training have been temporarily suspended.
An estimated 5,600 people spend their nights in local emergency shelters, and hundreds rely on day shelters like St. Francis for other needs.
City officials say no one in the homeless community has tested positive for the coronavirus. But public health officials say it’s only a matter of time.
Most people without permanent homes are over the age of 50, and many are sick. They also don’t have convenient access to running water to wash their hands or stay clean. This combination puts them at greater risk.
Boston officials last week announced the opening of temporary screening and testing clinics outside two local homeless shelters, and said more could be coming.
All those seeking entry to St. Francis will face mandatory medical screening starting Wednesday. Those who show symptoms of the coronavirus will be isolated in a small section of the lobby.
Governor Charlie Baker on Monday issued a stay-at-home advisory ordering all nonessential businesses closed. The move, aimed to stop the spread of the virus, could also put a squeeze on those living on the margins and the people who provide them services.
Some shelter programs are already feeling the crunch. John Yazwinski, president of Father Bill’s and MainSpring in Brockton, said around 250 people stayed each night at its two adult shelters last week, up from around 220. Amid the increase, the in-kind donations the agency relies on to feed its shelter clients are drying up.
“On top of everything else, we’re worried about how to cover those costs and stay operational,” he said.
LaFrazia was especially concerned about what job losses and economic turmoil will do to clients who most recently got off the streets and into housing, but still lack a wealth of resources and support.
“They live on a razor’s edge,” she said.
Inside the St. Francis lunch room Monday, Gerald Hamilton sat with dozens of others and took bites of a ham and cheese sandwich, one of 1,000 lunches prepared this day.
“My situation was really clicking, but this coronavirus stuff . . ." Hamilton said, trailing off.
Hamilton, 60, has spent decades on the streets. On another day, he likely would have huddled with his case manager to discuss housing options. The two have been working to obtain a copy of Hamilton’s birth certificate and other necessary documents. But government offices are largely shut down, so Hamilton’s transition to permanent housing won’t happen soon.
Hamilton planned to spend the rest of the afternoon at St. Francis House until the door shut, then head back to a night shelter.
“Right now, everything is stopped," he said.