Special to DigBoston
Originally published in Cambridge Day
A temporary homeless shelter opened Saturday night at the War Memorial Recreation Center in Mid-Cambridge—after two weeks before city councillors and a day late after a last-minute change requiring guests to test negative for COVID-19. Results from tests at the city’s warming center for the homeless Thursday did not arrive until Saturday afternoon.
Capping two days of confusion in presenting shelter turnout to the public, city spokesman Jeremy Warnick declined Saturday to say how many people were tested and how many, if any, tested positive. He said it was in line with the Cambridge Public Health Department’s policy of not identifying nursing homes or assisted living centers with positive cases.
Nelson, who was at the warming center but who did not give his last name, said an ambulance took another guest away Saturday evening and that guest’s wife, who was also at the center, said her husband had tested positive and she, negative. “I’m worried,” Nelson said, noting that he and others in the warming center had spent hours with the infected man; the center remained open all day Saturday and guests were discouraged from leaving. When people did leave, he said, they often bought liquor and drank with other homeless people on the street, then came back to the warming center.
“They use drugs; they share their drinks,” he said. In the warming center, some guests and staff members were coughing, Nelson said, and “the city doesn’t understand” the danger of housing people together. Fifty-five homeless people have signed a petition asking the city to use hotel rooms or vacant apartments for the homeless during the pandemic, he said. “Our lives matter,” the petition says, adding that it’s “impossible to practice proper hygiene and social distancing” while living on the street or in a shelter.
Nelson said he finally got his test result—negative—at around 7:50 p.m. When he arrived at the War Memorial shelter at almost 9 p.m. after walking from the warming center in Central Square, he was the first one there, he said. The shelter will remain open during the day, unlike many facilities that house the homeless.
Warnick said anyone who tested positive would be taken to one of the regional hotels set aside for homeless people who are infected and need to isolate themselves. Those who test negative can stay in the War Memorial shelter in the field house after having their temperature checked and answering questions about their health. Warnick said some people had refused to be tested; they won’t be allowed into the shelter.
Healthcare for the Homeless will hold a medical clinic for shelter guests five times a week, Warnick said. The warming center will now close, he said.
Warming center guests were tested Thursday; people at a shelter at 240 Albany St. are to be tested next week, Warnick said. He said some who test negative may choose to stay at the Albany Street shelter instead of going to the War Memorial. The Albany St. facility is a “wet””shelter that allows guests to bring and use alcohol and drugs, while the War Memorial shelter forbids that.
City Councillor Quinton Zondervan, who had advocated for the tests, said he was disturbed that warming center guests spent two nights together and left the center during the day while people were awaiting test results. “We have no answer to the problem of reinfection,” where a person who was unknowingly infected could spread the virus to others, or someone who wasn’t could have contact with an infected person outside, Zondervan said. He said he didn’t understand why the city didn’t move people awaiting results to the quarantine area in the War Memorial, where people have separate spaces.
Warnick said that area was for people with symptoms or contact with an infected person and awaiting test results, and the warming center guests who were tested did not have symptoms or previous contact. Any homeless person with signs of illness would have been tested earlier than Thursday, he said, urging verification by Susan Feinberg, spokeswoman for the city health department. She did not respond to an email.
Zondervan said he was told that 40 people were tested. The quarantine area has space for only 20 people. Warnick said that area was “operational, and several individuals who tested positive while in quarantine were transported to the regional isolation centers.”
On Friday evening, when the shelter was scheduled to open, no one except police were at the entrance to the fieldhouse .The city did not say whether anyone was expected and did not explain the delay until Saturday afternoon.
City officials surprised neighborhood residents and the School Committee when they announced on March 30 that the city would use the War Memorial athletic facility to house homeless adults and prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. People without a home have no place to isolate themselves if they test positive for the virus, and gathering places for the homeless don’t offer enough room for social distancing, advocates for the homeless said.