Protecting the most vulnerable

PAUL BILODEAU/Staff photo. People wait outside of the Action Inc. emergency shelter at 370 Main St. in Gloucester. Organizations that serve the homeless are putting in overtime to help those in need while also protecting their own staff.

Many Cape Ann families are staying home amid the escalating COVID-19 outbreak. But what about those who don’t have a home?

Organizations that serve the homeless are putting in overtime to help those in need while also protecting their own staff.

"It has been a challenge," said Jennifer Beloff, Action Inc.'s director of client and housing services. "Everyday something new is coming up so we are just trying to adapt  each day to the different news that is coming out or the recommendations that are coming out."

While the world seems to have stopped during the pandemic, organizations such as Action Inc. are busier than ever aiding the homeless.

"We are doing everything we can to ensure their safety and mitigate any exposure that we can," Beloff said, adding that staff have increased their cleaning and screening protocols. 

“The people that are living with us are seeing the same things we are on the news, and slowly but surely, the outside world is closing,” said Jason Etheridge, executive director of the Grace Center day shelter in Gloucester, Lifebridge in Salem, and River House in Beverly. “We’re talking about a group of people who are, with limited resources, watching the rest of the world shut down around them.”

The result, Etheridge said, is “a lot of hopelessness right now.”

“We’re really looking at people’s mental, physical, and spiritual health in a really holistic way right now,” Etheridge said. “There’s a chronic population, a population that’s unsheltered, and here in Salem for example, we’re continuing our day services to the best of our ability.”

Preparing for the unexpected

When caring for the homeless — whether it’s individuals or families — the entire community is there to help.  

“We are using our community partnerships throughout the city like Action Inc, The Open Door, the Health Department and many others as we try assist the homeless community as much as we can,” said Lt. Jeremiah Nicastro, who runs the Gloucester Police Department’s new Community Impact Unit. 

“It has become challenging for many of us but this will not stop us from assisting anyone in the community,” he added. 

While collaboration is key for these organizations, the situation is not null of difficulties. 

Corey Jackson, executive director at Citizens Inn in Peabody, said there’s a lot of trauma involved.

“Complex trauma is already a huge challenge as soon as any of our families enter our shelter program, and we’re a trauma-informed agency. We’ve studied it. We’ve trained all our staff on it,” he said. “I’m so thankful to the staff for really taking that training seriously, because we’ve never needed it more than we do now.” 

But one thing makes that difficult for the shelters today: the crisis brought by COVID-19 is changing daily, and that has thrown a lot of regular systems offline, according to Tina Kirk, Citizens Inn’s program director.

“Things have abruptly changed,” she said. “Children are suddenly home from school. People have lost their day care. Any appointments they had progressing with housing and possibilities for future permanent housing have been put on hold.”

And those, it turns out, are the things families entering Citizens Inn need the most, Kirk said. 

“Their main concerns are making sure they have their children in school or day care so they can get a job and work on housing, so they can get out of shelter,” Kirk said. “Now, all of that is on standstill — and it’s extremely overwhelming, with the mental health challenges and the coping skills they do have.”

Being said, “we’re in constant communication with the families,” Kirk continued. “The front-line staff are still coming in every day to work their shifts.”

Still, Jackson said, it isn’t the same.

“We pride ourselves on being a very dignified living environment,” Jackson said. “Amidst this crisis, we have to sort of lock things down in a way that doesn’t feel very dignified. It starts to feel more like an institutionalized environment than a home.” 

While a representative from Wellspring House of Gloucester was not able to return the Times phone call in time for publication, Executive Director Melissa A. Dimond left a message on the agency's official website emphasizing their dedication to continued service to more than 500 families on Cape Ann and across the North Shore amidst these difficult times. 

 “Wellspring remains open to provide the essential services of family shelter, homelessness prevention and support for families facing financial hardship,” Dimond wrote. “We are making adjustments to provide services safely, including remote support when appropriate.”

And there's disruption. These are people who have established routines that have suddenly been thrown on hold just as much as the families in programs at Wellspring. 

“It’s a very nerve-wracking time, and there’s a lot of angst," said Etheridge of Lifebridge. "There’s anxiety.”

“Where would unsheltered people go naturally?” Etheridge said. “Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, the library. As those close down, we’re seeing limited options for the places these people would be at.”

Etheridge said he considers the pandemic and the economic downturn “the beginning. The need for our services is only going to grow as this continues.”

 Beloff of Action, Inc. confirmed that they are also at capacity. 

"Which is probably a good thing for maintaining and lowering the risk of exposure because new people aren't being entered into the community," Beloff explained. "With that being said, there are other people who are homeless out on the streets that we are trying to make sure get access to supplies and things that they need to be safe."

Kept online by giving 

But where there are fears, there are also causes for celebration.

“The community has stepped in,” Jackson said. “All these restaurants, tons of people who are either out of work or under-employed right now are coming to our front door every morning asking to help out or what they can do.”

“We’re so grateful,” Jackson continued, rattling off a long list of local businesses and restaurants that have pitched in before laughing and saying he probably shouldn’t name them.

“As they’re struggling to get their inventory out the door, they’re actually having their chefs cook and prepare meals in their kitchens and delivering that to us.”

Beloff referred to Action Inc's online chat services and website as a great resource for people who are looking for ways to help while keeping the practice of social distancing. 

But there’s one thing shelters need right now more than anything, organizations across Cape Ann and the North Shore agreed on: cash. 

“Cash donations have been critical because of all the changes we’ve had to make,” Jackson said. “Almost every change we’ve made has had some form of cost associated with it, and the cash donations that have come in to support our efforts have been very helpful and must continue throughout the crisis, or things will become a little more challenging for us.” 

Etheridge called that “a really hard ask.”

“Everyone’s looking for the same thing. We need philanthropic generosity. We’re going to need funds to continue operating,” he said. “Short of that, (we need) some of the very things everyone is looking for — food, supplies — and not necessarily tomorrow, but three weeks from now.”

Staff writer Taylor Ann Bradford contributed to this article.

Dustin Luca may be contacted at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@gloucestertimes.com.

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