Boston's Homeless at Risk as Coronavirus Cases Mount

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For Portia Dayton, caring for her son in the days since his preschool was shuttered has been nervewracking.

Dayton, a recovering addict, depends on support from Boston's Horizons for Homeless Children as she works to change her circumstances.

The nonprofit provides free early education, counseling and other services to ease the trauma of homelessness and give kids critical structure in their daily lives.

Dayton lives in a single room inside a transitional housing facility shared by eight families. She typically sends her son to preschool and participates in regular therapy sessions with him.


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But like so many others, her daily routine was upended this month by drastic measures put in place by the government to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"It's all been cancelled," she said.

Kate Barrand, president and CEO of Horizons, said she worries the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic could push more families into homelessness.

"Unfortunately, it's the children that pay the highest price because they're in the most vulnerable period of their growth," Barrand said.

Her concern is shared by advocates across the city, who are ramping up their efforts to prepare for the potential spread of COVID-19 – the disease caused by the virus – among residents who are homeless.

Many face the challenge of trying to wash, quarantine or keep their distance from others without a permanent roof overhead.

Dr. Jim O'Connell, founder of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, said he's petrified of what could lie ahead for the homeless population, which numbers roughly 2,300 people at any one time, according to the most recent data available from the city's census in January 2019.

He says there hasn't been a case of COVID-19 among them yet, but worries the disease could move quickly once it gains a foothold.

"I have a growing nervous feeling," he told NBC10 Boston's Ally Donnelly. "The longer there is no one … the worse it's going to be later."

Everett, a 31-year-old who is living in his car and didn't want his last name used, said he does everything he can to stay safe and keep clean, and he is avoiding the city's crowded shelters.

"I'm not afraid to die, but I still want to be healthy," he said. "I want to live."

As the city girds for a rapid rise in cases, Mayor Marty Walsh said Boston is developing a comprehensive plan for city services. It will have help from a professional — retired four-star Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whose consulting firm was recently tapped to coordinate the city's coronavirus response.

Nonprofit workers are also erecting facilities for screening, testing and isolating patients next to two locations that serve the homeless — the Southampton Street shelter and Pine Street Inn.

Medical staff from the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program are staffing those tents, which provide 16 isolation beds for people who have symptoms of the disease, and another 20 beds for people who are quarantined because they've been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Dr. Jessie Gaeta, the medical director, provided a walking tour of the facility via Skype Monday. She likened the new tents to a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, equipped with electricity, heat and basic medical supplies, such as thermometers, glucometers and latex gloves.

Gaeta said the organization hopes the tents will ease the burden on area emergency rooms and keep sick people away from healthy ones.

"The last thing in the world you want to do is bring them into the shelter where they can infect 100, 200, 300 people," explained O'Connell, the group's founder.

While the tents give the city more capacity for medical care, both Horizons for Homeless Children and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program are in urgent need of resources, ranging from volunteers and supplies to financial support.

After opening its doors recently, the 16-person tent on Southampton Street for people in isolation was already filled Wednesday. Gaeta expected the 20-person tent beside it to reach capacity soon after.

"We're going to need more of these," she said. "This is really just going to be the start, I think."

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