“I wasn’t too personally worried about getting coronavirus, mostly because I assumed I was going to be positive at some point. It wasn’t for me personally a question of if, it was more a question of when.”
Pine Street Inn men’s shelter director Josh O’Brien remembers the adrenaline-filled days he worked when the hype around the coronavirus pandemic caused initial uncertainty.
“I just could not fall asleep, even though [I’d] been up probably 24 hours, because you always felt like you had to be on an alert,” O’Brien said.
For the first month or so, O’Brien slept at a nearby hotel and once in his car before bringing a bed into his office.
Now the Somerville native, who has led shelters for 25 years, is finally able to return home to his wife and teenage children in York, Maine—an 80 minute drive from New England’s largest shelter.
O’Brien is among the front line essential workers who had to adjust to a new normal due to the coronavirus pandemic. That includes taking extra precautions to make sure that he’s not exposed to the virus and doesn’t bring it home with him.
Emilio Baez, the housekeeping administrator for the Inn, is still working six to seven days a week leading a team of 28 housekeepers, and realizes he could be exposed to the virus. The pandemic has him performing what he calls “a ritual” every day before entering his home to protect his family—especially his 12-year-old asthmatic daughter. Once he arrives back at his house in Roslindale, Baez cleans his car, removes his shoes, and heads straight to the basement.
“I wash my clothes on a daily basis, anything that I wear outside when I come home from work gets washed,” he said. “Then I take off my shoes, I sanitize my backpack. [And] then I go back up to my bathroom, take a quick shower and then clean the bathroom afterwards. Then I’ll be able to go and say hello to my family.”
Baez wasn’t directed to take these measures when returning home from work. Instead, he said he picked them up through his involvement with a task force set up at the shelter and by listening to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The process, he said, takes him anywhere between an hour to an hour-and-a-half a day.
“It’s getting into a habit that like anything else you just gotta get used to it,” he said. “When I see my kids everyday I know I can safely say, Hey, at least I did the best I could do. I didn’t bring anything home, you know.
“And once again, that’s not guaranteed either.”
Baez is in charge of not only maintaining personal cleanliness at home, but also making sure that the clients of the shelter feel safe and are practicing social distancing while keeping themselves clean.
O’Brien described all of the emotions that new rules and regulations conjured up among guests and staff at the shelters he works in, including one in Jamaica Plain and another in Dorchester. Many of the guests, he said, suffer from some form of mental illness, so he and his staff have had several one-on-one discussions with guests who just didn’t get it.
“I think one of the benefits of having this be a global pandemic is that all guests are very aware … so there’s an acknowledgement, I think, right off the bat that this isn’t anything punitive,” O’Brien said.
To ensure guests understood the importance of cleanliness, getting tested, and being isolated if you test positive, O’Brien said conversations were angled to ensure that instructions and new rules “weren’t personal to them.” Organizers also dealt with questions as personal protective equipment was distributed and barriers were put up between beds to reduce the spread of the disease.
“Why are these folks walking around with face shields and gowns and things I’ve only seen in a movie? That was pretty scary for some of our guests and our staff,” he said. “Just working with everybody to know we’re all in the same situation, we’re all potentially exposed, and we’re all trying to stay healthy.”
Efforts at the shelter to keep people safe were underway before the first case of COVID-19 was reported in late March. Mobile hand-washing stations were installed at the entrance of the shelter; people were screened for symptoms. As universal testing became available to the homeless population, gift cards from Dunkin’ were given as an incentive to encourage shelter guests to get tested.
Baez said a subcontractor comes in daily to assist his team, which has ramped up cleaning and sanitation schedules. He recalled the time when positive cases began popping up across the city, dramatically changing things for his department.
“Like in any other place the insecurity, and I would say, panic kicks in, so that’s when my team—I have a team of 28 staff—we get hands-on and ramped up cleaning [and] ramped up the sanitation.”
Even after hours, Baez fields calls to keep the lines of communication open with staff. O’Brien is also on call, but less so these days than at the beginning.
“Teams are doing really well,” O’Brien said. “We have a lot of support, keeping folks as safe as we can, both guests and staff, so I feel more comfortable going home.”
When he wasn’t able to go home as often, O’Brien’s family would drive in from Maine, pull the car over, and drop off food and clothes to him while maintaining a distance of seven feet. Though he is home more often these days, the shelter operator still makes sure to change his clothes in the garage, wear gloves, eat alone, and stay in the guest room after returning from shifts. O’Brien tested negative for the virus recently, but said he never thought too much about personally contracting it.
“I wasn’t too personally worried about getting coronavirus, mostly because I assumed I was going to be positive at some point,” he said. “It wasn’t for me personally a question of if, it was more a question of when.”
Like O’Brien, Baez doesn’t think so much about contracting the virus. Instead, he’s focused on the health of his clients and staff.
“I’m doing this type of job because you’ve got to put yourself sometimes in some of these guys’ shoes—most people don’t have a house, most people don’t have a family to call,” he said. “Today it’s for them, tomorrow it could be for me. Life comes around and goes around so you never know where you’re going to be tomorrow.”