WALTHAM, MA — On the heels of the governor's extension of the stay-at-home advisory to May 18 and in an effort to stem the spread of the new coronavirus, three Waltham City Councilors proposed the city council work with the mayor's office, health department, Middlesex Human Services Agency and other organizations supporting people who have no place to call home.
Two tents were set up on the Waltham Common to help the city's homeless population practice social distancing at night, but because they are emergency shelters, people experiencing homelessness are only permitted to stay there overnight.
That has drawn concern among advocates of the homeless in Waltham who say it puts the already vulnerable population in a more dangerous situation and increases the risk of the coronavirus spreading in the homeless community and beyond.
"There has not been a huge amount of transparency about long term planning for the people who are experiencing homelessness who are currently using the shelter, and using the tent," said Councilor Kristine Mackin of Ward 7 Tuesday night."I would like to use this resolution as an op to open the dialogue between the council, the mayor and other city departments to get in writing what the plans are and to help figure out a path forward to make sure everybody is being treated with care and consideration in a way that maximizes the health and safety of the entire Waltham community."
As municipalities and testing facilities begin to open testing sites to people who are asymptomatic to the coronavirus, Mackin also submitted requests to the mayor about plans to possibly test Waltham's homeless for the virus.
"This is not intended to be a mandate," Mackin said, calling her request to the mayor and Health Department's Michelle Feeley an "information-gathering effort."
Testing entire shelters is not unheard of. Many of the shelters for people experiencing homelessness in Boston and Cambridge have tested entire shelters. The tests showed that some 40 percent of their populations tested positive, though not all were symptomatic. The Middlesex Human Service Agency, which runs three emergency shelters in Waltham recently worked with the mayor's office to get the nine women at one of its shelters tested. Officials told Patch none of the nine tests came back positive.
"The reason that I wanted to request this info about a plan is because many of Waltham's people experiencing homelessness don't have access to health care, don't have a primary care physician and are not aware of the resources to get referrals for testing if they do have symptoms," Mackin said. "And then [there's the] the additional danger of people who are asymptomatic living in a congregant setting exposing not only each other, but the first responders who are responsible for maintaining security safety and at the tents and the other workers who are going in to try to help."
Mackin said it would be helpful for the council to know if the city has a plan.
"I would just like to know if we have a plan, what the plan is," she said. "And then we can work forward from there."
Mackin said she hoped to have a response by next week's council meeting. The request was forwarded to the Economic Community Development Committee after the council approved it.
The council approved Mackin's request to the mayor that she provide a plan to the council for accommodating people who are homeless, including planned closure dates for the tents, the conditions that would have to be met for closures, the conditions that would trigger a reopening of the tents, and outline who makes the decision to open the tents during inclement weather and when.
"It's obviously a very important matter," said Councilor at Large Patrick O'Brien, who signed onto the resolution. "Today I saw in Boston that some of the [people experiencing homelessness in Boston] who have tested positive for COVID-19 have now not been able to go back to the homeless shelters and have been referred to some of the hospitals in Bostons for shelter overnight. So I think this is very timely for Waltham to see what we are doing to try to help our homeless population."
Councilor Jonathan Paz of Ward 9 also signed onto the resolution.
Watch the city council meeting about the resolution and two requests: