A Bed for the Night: Helping the Most Vulnerable During a Pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation has become the new normal, as many Americans seek the safety and security of their own homes. But for the nation’s homeless population, staying healthy during a pandemic presents a unique challenge that requires unique solutions. As the coronavirus spread throughout the city of Cambridge, MA, the city scrambled to find answers.

“COVID-19 is very communicable, and we were concerned that we needed to decongregate the area homeless shelters,” said Claude A. Jacob, chief public health officer, Cambridge Health Alliance, a city healthcare service provider tasked with supporting the homeless population. “We needed to have a space to move some of the homeless population to physically decompress those settings to ensure social distancing practices.”

The answer emerged in the form of the city’s recreation center, co-located with the public high school gym. Established by the city as a temporary homeless shelter to ease crowding at the other shelters, the site accepts single adults and couples, and is structured to enforce social distancing.

Claude A. Jacob, Chief Public Health Officer, Cambridge Health Alliance

“In the field house the cots are eight feet apart, and if anyone is away from their assigned cots, they are required to wear their masks or facial coverings to align with recommended mitigation practices,” Jacob said.

To further protect against COVID-19 within the space, Jacob said, staff instituted prescreening protocols modeled after a pilot project developed to test area nursing home staff and residents. Everyone entering the temporary shelter is screened for symptoms, a strategy that has proven effective.


When Finding One Solution Introduces More Challenges

But in opening the shelter, the city faced an array of other challenges. Ensuring continued service to the homeless residents—providing everything from daily meals to critical supplies and health services—was a daunting task. That is where the CDC Foundation stepped in to help.

“I was looking for any organizations that could help us acquire personal protective equipment, so that is how I initially connected with the CDC Foundation,” Jacob said. “I connected with a senior advisor at the Foundation who is very familiar with the plight of local health departments. The Foundation came through in the clutch and shipped us masks that we were able to share with area service providers, staff and community partners.”

Through that contact, Jacob quickly realized the CDC Foundation was able to help in other ways as well. The Cambridge Public Health Department, which a city department administered by Cambridge Health Alliance, applied for and received a grant to support the shelter, and also to generate three mini-grants that could be used to support other service providers, like food pantries, that serve the city’s homeless. Addressing food insecurity has been recognized as one of the city’s most pressing priorities exacerbated by this public health crisis.

From the time that we applied for and received the funding, the turnaround time seemed like it was almost overnight. That made a world of difference for us.

“The funding from the CDC Foundation went to offset the expenses needed to establish the temporary shelter and support the immediate needs of three settlement houses in our city,” Jacob said. “At the shelter, we provide security, have meals delivered seven days a week, and have case management staff onsite 24/7—all made available from the resources provided by the city of Cambridge, university partners and supplemented by the Foundation.”

Fast Collaboration for a Fast-Moving Crisis

With an average of about 60 homeless residents using the temporary shelter each night, the site is providing a vital outlet for the established city shelters. By recognizing the unique threats posed by COVID-19 to the city’s homeless population, Cambridge got ahead of the problem quickly, thanks in large part to the timely support it received from the CDC Foundation.

“From the time that we applied for and received the funding, the turnaround time seemed like it was almost overnight,” Jacob said. “That made a world of difference for us to support our response efforts on the ground.”