Hampshire College opening residence hall to homeless

  • The sign in at the entrance of Hampshire College. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 4/8/2020 1:06:09 PM

AMHERST — An isolation shelter for any homeless individuals unable to stay at the town’s overnight shelter in case of a positive COVID-19 diagnosis could be coming to the Hampshire College campus.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Hampshire College President Ed Wingenbach announced Tuesday that the college will have space in a residence hall designated to house people experiencing homelessness who need to be in isolation as they recover from the novel coronavirus.

Bockelman praised Wingenbach and the college for being willing to provide the accommodations to some of the most vulnerable residents of Amherst, many of whom seek shelter at Craig’s Place on North Pleasant Street.

“It’s a very challenging situation, but it’s in everyone’s best interest to find a solution,” Bockelman said of the college’s offer.

Hampshire would provide available bedrooms in a residence hall that is not currently being used for students, and would be the temporary home for any homeless person diagnosed with COVID-19 who is not sick enough to be hospitalized, but is told to go home to self-isolate.

At the moment, the college is prepared to offer one wing of its Dakin House residence hall, which can accommodate eight people, Wingenbach said Wednesday. Because each resident would need to have their own bathroom to properly quarantine, the housing can only accommodate as many people as there are bathrooms.

The idea is to limit the spread of the coronavirus in the community as well as among other homeless people and to get them out of the elements that could make the condition worse.

So far, Health Director Julie Federman said healthcare workers have been at the shelter for about three weeks screening clients with temperature checks and asking questions about whether the individuals are feeling OK or are showing any signs of COVID-19.

“We have everything in place for when we get that first case,” Federman told the Town Council on Monday.

Wingenbach said that despite the college being hard hit by the health crisis, the partnership is “very clearly fundamental to the mission of Hampshire College, and of educational institutions generally, to try to contribute to the health of the communities in which they are situated.”

When talking with Amherst town officials about how the college can best help the town during the pandemic, Wingenbach said “it became very clear very quickly that there was a real challenge with what we can do with unhoused people if they’re diagnosed with COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 but aren’t sick enough to go to the hospital.

“You tell someone to go home and isolate themselves — well, what do you do if you don’t have a home to go to?” he added. “They have to have somewhere to go, and we have space that can serve that need.”

Hampshire has also offered to provide three meals a day to the residents living at the dormitory.

The town will coordinate 24-hour staffing at the residence hall by a medical professional and security staff member and will clean and sanitize the facility once it is no longer needed for the pandemic, Wingenbach said.

Such an isolation shelter would not open until Craig’s Doors, the nonprofit organization that operates the homeless shelter gets 24-hour staffing, including medical personnel, in place.

Federman notes this could be a challenge – and might, in fact, make it impossible to execute. But the isolation shelter is still worth pursuing on the campus.

Even though Northampton turned its high school into a shelter for those at the Interfaith Shelter and Grove Street Inn in that city, Federman told the Town Council that there is sufficient space and adequate social distancing between cots at Craig’s Place and that guests are using trays so they can have their meals with enough separation.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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