Courtesy of the Beth-El Center

MILFORD, CT – Some service providers have been able to get unsheltered homeless individuals into hotel rooms as the number of state residents testing positive for COVID-19 increases every day.

But there are still areas of the state where people living on the streets or in tents have no access to clean water or bathroom facilities to help stop the spread of the disease, state officials said.

“Municipalities need to step up and provide basic dignity and respect,” said Jennifer Paradis, executive director of Beth-El Center, shelter for the homeless in Milford. “We have public showers and bathrooms that we are allowing anyone to use.”

Paradis was one of more than a dozen service providers who spoke with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal during a virtual roundtable discussion Wednesday on housing and homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic.

The talk highlighted the needs of service providers, Blumenthal said. “These reports give me a clear idea of the potential emergencies out there for the homeless population and the need for testing,” he said.

Service providers called for more testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, for staff and homeless individuals during the discussion with Blumenthal.

The state Department of Housing has focused its efforts on “decompressing” the shelters so that people can spread out, said Steve DiLella, director of Individual and Family Support Programs at the Department of Housing. “A lot of people have been moved to hotels in the past week, week-and-a-half,” DiLella said last week.

About 60% of the state’s homeless population living in shelters has been moved to hotel rooms to allow the people who remained at the shelters to spread out. The state may need to provide rooms for another 60 to 90 days, DiLella said.

There is no count of how many homeless individuals living in shelters, hotels or on the streets have tested positive for COVID-19, DiLella said.

Now the agency is trying to connect federally qualified community health centers to homeless individuals who are staying at hotels, DiLella said. “They need medical support and we need to develop plans for someone who is symptomatic. Some may need to go to the hospital, when they recover where would be the best place for them to recover? We’re trying to identify locations for that.”

The Department of Housing is also working on getting those living on the streets into hotels and providing handwashing stations and portable showers for those who don’t want to go inside, DiLella said. “We don’t want to clear encampments, which is in the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines. We don’t want to create more chaos.”

The move to deal with those on streets came weeks after officials decided to move people from the shelters to stop the spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings.

Beth-El was among the shelters across the state that was able to adequately prepare for social distancing with state funding to pay for hotel rooms and provide rooms for unsheltered individuals, Paradis said.

The center kept open its emergency overflow winter shelter weeks beyond when it should have closed as the pandemic began to impact Connecticut, Paradis said. She was able to secure 26 hotel rooms with funding from the DOH. Paradis used the rooms to house four males who were in the year-round shelter program and others who were in the temporary winter shelter. If she hadn’t then they would be on the streets, she said.

Due to their efforts, at this point there are a limited number of people who are still on the streets in the area that Beth-El serves, she said.

The remaining year-round shelter residents are able to spread out and now the center is doing outreach with those who are still unsheltered, she told Blumenthal. “This is an amazing gift to be able to shelter those who were previously unsheltered,” Paradis said. “We’re trying to navigate these folks into stable housing but we’re still struggling with the unsheltered population that is outside of the shelter system.”

Paradise told Blumenthal that communities needed to provide hand washing stations and bathrooms that are open, “that has been a struggle,” she said.

Beth-El is also taking every opportunity to educate homeless individuals in how to properly use masks and gloves and asking how people are accessing clean water for hygiene, she said Thursday morning.

“This is still new information for some folks,” she said.