Regional leaders: Use Northampton hotel as COVID-19 site for homeless

  • Veronica Kozak looks at her phone after a night on the entryway of the Unitarian Society in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Christina “Smiles” Remmes cleans up the area where she and others are living and storing supplies in the parking lot behind Northampton City Hall, Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Christina “Smiles” Remmes talks about the homeless situation in Northampton amid the pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Christina“Smiles” Remmes talks about the homeless situation in Northampton amid the pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Christina “Smiles” Remmes talks about the homeless situation in Northampton amid the pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Adam Mcavoy talks about the homeless situation in Northampton amid the pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Adam Mcavoy talks about the homeless situation in Northampton amid the pandemic. In the middle is Christina “Smiles” Remmes and Josh Warfield in the parking lot behind City Hall. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 11/11/2020 8:47:42 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Regional municipal leaders are pushing the state to use a Northampton hotel as a shelter for homeless people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in western Massachusetts and need a place to isolate or quarantine.

The plan calls for using the Quality Inn & Suites, 117 Conz St., as the site for all of western Massachusetts, including the Pioneer Valley and the Berkshires, according to a letter sent last month to Marylou Sudders, the state’s secretary of health and human services.

Currently, if someone experiencing homelessness tests positive for COVID-19 in western Massachusetts, they may need to travel more than 100 miles to find a state-run isolation and quarantine hotel in the eastern part of the state, according to the letter.

The mayors and town administrators are asking to meet with Sudders to discuss the idea.

“We look forward to partnering with you to keep people sheltered and safe with a focus on regional equity which ensures that Western Massachusetts is afforded opportunities and services to meet our unique needs,” the letter reads.

The letter was signed by Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman, South Hadley Town Administrator Michael Sullivan, and the mayors of Greenfield, Springfield, West Springfield, Chicopee, Pittsfield and North Adams.

A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Service was not immediately available for comment on Wednesday.

Long way to go

Narkewicz said Wednesday that he met with Sudders and members of her staff about the issue as a result of the October letter, and that the group of city and town leaders sent another letter to Sudders on Monday asking to meet again. In the October letter, the city and town officials point out that the only isolation and quarantine hotel available for those experiencing homelessness is in Everett, a 200-mile round trip from Northampton and even farther for the Berkshire County communities.

Christina Remmes, who goes by the name Smiles, is currently homeless in Northampton and didn’t know that the only isolation and quarantine site for those experiencing homelessness is in Everett. Generally, she wouldn’t want to leave Northampton for shelter, she said.

“You don’t displace an already displaced person,” she said.

Last spring, the same Northampton hotel was used as the regional site for isolation and quarantine.

“As we move now into the wintertime period, I think the concern arose again about whether or not the state would once again establish something in western Massachusetts,” Narkewicz said. “If any of our communities had a resident who tested positive for COVID, we need a place to isolate them.”

He noted that the state said it would provide transportation to the hotel in the eastern part of the state. Narkewicz said he doesn’t think the isolation and quarantine hotel needs to be in Northampton, just somewhere in the four westernmost counties.

Last spring, Amherst partnered with Hampshire College to have its own location for people who tested positive for COVID-19. Because Hampshire College is open this fall, that site is no longer available.

The state had other isolation and recovery centers last spring. In addition to Northampton, there were centers in Lexington, Pittsfield, Taunton and Everett.

Bockelman told the Amherst Town Council Monday that he understands state officials fear wasting Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency resources by renting the Northampton hotel, which got little use last spring. He also said the state should be responsible for financing a regional solution.

If anyone at any shelter is exposed to COVID-19, the October letter says, lack of an isolation and quarantine site may cause the entire facility to shut down to keep people safe.

“These scenarios pose an extreme health risk to these individuals and the communities in which they live and seriously threaten to spread COVID-19 when our shared goal is to contain it,” the letter states.

Shelter space

On Nov. 1, Amherst opened a homeless shelter run by Craig’s Doors: A Home Association, with a congregate site at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House in downtown Amherst and, using a state grant, making individual rooms available at the University Motor Lodge. If any guests test positive for COVID-19, they will be transported to the Everett site, which Bockelman called “incredibly inappropriate” due to its distance from town.

In Northampton, both the Grove Street Inn and the Interfaith Emergency Shelter are open at partial capacity due to COVID-19. Because of the partial capacity at both shelters though, they are not serving as many people as they would in a typical November. When both shelters were at full capacity in previous years before COVID was a concern, they would have about 40 beds, but currently, there are 25 beds between both shelters, according to Amy Timmins, a spokeswoman for ServiceNet.

Plans for additional beds are in the works but have not yet been finalized.

“We should have more details to share with you on the plan we are working on by early next week,” Timmins said Wednesday, adding that the organization hopes to expand its beds back to its usual winter amount of 40.

In the spring, the city and ServiceNet opened an emergency shelter at the high school, a building that wasn’t being used because no students were in school. But this fall, prioritized students are going into the building and more students will be coming in as a hybrid plan is phased in.

“We are in active conversation with an organization in Northampton together with ServiceNet to open some additional shelter beds to increase the total capacity of our two shelters,” Narkewicz said Wednesday, adding that ServiceNet is the lead on the initiative, and the city is playing a “support role.” He hopes an announcement of those additional beds will come soon.

Adam Mcavoy said he’s trying to get into a shelter in the area or find long-term housing. He’s been homeless for years, and currently can’t work because he has a broken fibula. He and his friend Josh Warfield said being homeless during the pandemic is difficult — there are fewer places open to go and people visiting downtown are less friendly, they said Wednesday while standing near City Hall in Northampton.

“Just because we’re on the streets, we’re not different than anyone else,” Warfield said.

“I might be homeless but my karma is good,” Mcavoy added.

Remmes, who said she has been in and out of homelessness for the past few years, said she wouldn’t go to ServiceNet shelters if their capacity expanded.

Since COVID-19 hit the state, she has met a few people in Northampton who are homeless for the first time, and she has been collecting blankets and handing them out to the homeless community in Northampton.

“There’s something about this town I care for,” she said.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com. Scott Merzbach and can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.




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