Since the pandemic arrived in the Upper Valley, safety has been at the center of our planning and actions. This priority has resulted in many changes including the way we operate our programs and even decisions to serve fewer people in some programs or not provide a program because we determined it wasn’t safe for staff or clients. At the same time, new services have been started to address needs that emerged due to the pandemic and the economic dislocation that followed.
A series of changes have put in place under the direction of Renee Weeks, the Haven’s Director of Shelter & Clinical Services, since March when COVID-19 became one of our main concerns. As she shares, “We have been forced to be swift and creative to help keep people experiencing homelessness safe during a pandemic. We are grateful to have an abundance of great staff and local and state partners who have assisted us in our efforts for safety for all.”
We first decided to close the winter seasonal shelter earlier than planned because the room in which the guests slept couldn’t conform to new CDC guidelines. With the support of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, we were able to provide private rooms and bathrooms for the Haven’s adult and family shelter guests, some within the walls of the Haven, some at nearby motels. Although an operational challenge, ultimately this move allowed us to provide temporary shelter in the safest way possible. This reduced our shelter occupancy dramatically and the VAHS determined that shelters in the state would not admit new guests. Beginning in June, we were able to gradually invite guests back to campus in our Hixon Adult Shelter and Byrne Family Shelter; with health precautions as our top priority, we are only using 50% of available space. Many new protocols were also added for safety, focused on sanitizing surfaces, safe distance, washing hands, mask wearing, and monitoring of health symptoms.
Approaching a New England winter, we recognized that it would be unsafe for both the people we aimed to provide a warm overnight space and anyone involved in the daily operations of the Haven to reopen in the room where we had previously operated our seasonal shelter. Knowing this, we have sought an alternative space for seasonal accommodations since the spring, including purchasing a hotel and renovating a site that could provide a cold weather respite as well as meeting space and counseling services. Unfortunately, ”the stars didn’t align” for us to move forward with these plans. We aren’t alone in facing these challenges. Other shelters around the state are opening to reduced capacity or not at all. Recently, the State of Vermont announced the continuation of their motel voucher program through the end of March 2021. With the continuing pandemic and loss of employment and incomes for many people, we can predict that more people are at risk of homelessness. A recent trip to local campsites by Renee and her team found a smaller number of people camping. All are connected with Haven service coordinators who will help them with their plans, which include entering a drug rehab program, moving in with a friend, leaving the area. and even securing an apartment.
Although we are grateful that Vermont is offering resources during the pandemic through CARES Act funding, we have been faced with a gap in supports for unhoused New Hampshire residents. To find a solution, the Haven has begun conversations with Lynne Goodwin, Human Services Director with the City of Lebanon. Through a partnership with Lebanon, the Haven will manage after-hours and weekend calls for assistance and fund emergency hotel stays for people who are literally homeless (as opposed to camping, staying with friends, etc.) and ineligible for the Vermont motel vouchers. They can then contact their local town welfare office when it is open to work out a plan for support.
We are amazed and pleased that 30 individuals and families have been placed into permanent housing during this pandemic through their diligent efforts supported by our team. Although the numbers of households finding shelter in local motels decreased over the summer, we continue to support those still living there through newly-added service coordinators to the Haven’s staff. New Housing Navigators work specifically with families who are now staying in motels or other shelters to help them find permanent housing. This task will be made easier by new very flexible funding programs that Vermont is providing for rent subsidies, moving expenses, security deposits and many other economic barriers. Our new Landlord Liaison and Housing Retention Specialist each provide support to those who attain housing through the CARES Act Housing Program, helping establish better working relationships between landlords and tenants and coordinating use of many programs that have emerged this year to support peoples’ transition to permanent housing. A new Peer Engagement Specialist provides outreach to people living with homelessness, mental health challenges, or substance use issues, helping them engage with multiple services and community resources.
Winter in a pandemic will be challenging for us all, but we are committed to getting through it together—safely, creatively, and with compassion for our neighbors.