Bridgeport struggles to provide safe haven for its homeless
BRIDGEPORT — Bridgeport is struggling to find a safe harbor for its homeless population and protect those who serve them.
“Lives are at stake,” said Cheryl Bell, head of housing for the Recovery Network nonprofit.
The homeless population is particularly vulnerable to the pandemic’s ravages, said Eneida Martinez, a city councilwoman who also works with the homeless population as a caseworker for Recovery.
“A lot of them do not have family support, a lot have mental health issues, substance abuse issues. A lot come from foster care or females who are physically abused by either parents or family and have no support. Some are illiterate,” she said.
People who work with homeless men and women say they find themselves in a bind at a time when “shelter in place” and “social distancing” to prevent the spread of coronavirus have become the order of the day.
“Space where beds are all in the same room or day shelters, drop-in centers where people would normally be seated or sleeping in close proximity — those spaces present a particular challenge at this time,” said David Gonzalez Rice, a community impact coordinator with the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness in Hartford.
Bell said Bridgeport and its nonprofit partners are treating the pandemic like a deep winter freeze, when the “street homeless” who normally fend for themselves need and seek more support.
Still, she said, some members of that community will continue to decline a place to stay.
“Some of them want to come in and some of them don’t,” Bell said. “You can get all the resources in place, but if the person doesn’t want it, you can’t make them. ... Mental health is a factor. And they don’t want to come into the shelter where there’s some level of order or expectations of them for safety.”
Bell added, “It’s very difficult, sometimes, to educate them on what’s going on and them having a full understanding.”
Late last week, the Bridgeport Rescue Mission announced that it would not provide beds for any more new clients and that existing overnight guests normally allowed to come and go would have to shelter in place because of the high risk of exposure to coronavirus.
“Which means anybody who has a bed now can remain with us in the shelter, but they will be required to stay on premises,” Donna Romano, a mission spokesperson, said in an interview.
Otherwise, Romano said, “We don’t know where they are going during the day, so we don’t know they are adhering to ‘social distancing.’ And because of that uncertainty, it presents a health risk to everyone they might come in contact with.”
In anticipation of a sudden need for beds, the city, along with groups like Recovery Network, Alpha Community Services YMCA, and Operation Hope this week opened a temporary shelter at the South End Community Center.
“We said we have a site because our childcare program is closed,” said Carmen Colon, a vice president with Alpha, which runs the center. “That’s a site where we offer childcare and rental space. It’s a very clean site.”
Colon said those staying in the South End location will be free to leave and return.
“We obviously encourage people to please stay as much as possible. But some folks are going to go out. Folks are also working and need to be able to go to their jobs,” Colon said.
Anyone entering is screened for possible virus symptoms. Their temperatures are checked for fever. If they display any signs of coronavirus, they will be sent to the hospital, she said.
Mayor Joe Ganim this week also said that the city is considering opening up Bassick High School as a “Plan B” shelter should the need arise.
“They can provide (space for) 120 beds,” Ganim said in one of his now daily live Facebook briefings on the pandemic.
And just like healthcare employees are scrambling to obtain personal protective gear to protect them from infection, so are those who interact with the homeless population.
“We are hearing from a number of our partners on the ground that they have staff who fall into a high risk category — pregnant, elderly, immune compromised,” said Rice. “That poses a real challenge to continuing to provide services.”
“Supplies are very limited, but we are all sharing (what) we have,” Colon said. “The city finally was able to get some masks in and are delivering some added masks and thermometers.”
And organizations like the Bridgeport Rescue Mission are also trying to put together “wellness” kits for clients with all of the items the general public is vying for at the store, like hand sanitizers and gloves.
Ganim has used his Facebook briefings to also appeal for supplies and financial assistance for the Thomas Merton Center, which, according to its website, “provides breakfast, lunch and day shelter to approximately 260 people, Monday through Saturday.”
“The Merton Center has been hit hard by this outbreak,” Ganim said. “Their stocks of nonperishable foods are dwindling and financial contributions have significantly dropped off. So they need our assistance.”
One silver lining is that, compared with other states, homelessness in Connecticut “has trended downward consistently by comparison to the rest of the country,” Rice said, and “we’ve often been at the forefront of developing coordinated responses and having good data to show where we’re doing well and shore things up.”
But, he added, “Our view is that the general public can’t really ever afford to ignore the homeless, and right now that’s being made really clear.”
Or, as Ganim put it, “We have an obligation. We have a home and benefits (that) sometimes we take for granted.”