Questions raised about homeless shelter

Bill Kirk, The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.
·5 min read

Mar. 14—METHUEN — Some city officials are raising questions about the continued use of the Days Inn as an emergency shelter for homeless people affected by COVID-19, saying that residents and business owners in the neighborhood have been complaining about conditions around the Pelham Street site.

City Councilors Joel Faretra and Allison Saffie raised the issue at a recent meeting, saying that while the state is funding the shelter and a private company is staffing it, the city isn't being told what's going on there.

"We are finding needles on the street, in the park, on the rail trail," Faretra said. "The neighborhood is getting a lot more dirty. If it is from (the hotel's residents), what is the agency (funding the program) doing to combat it?"

He added that some people "are sleeping in the park" off Pelham Street.

"Those people need the help," he said. "If somebody's paying for them to be there, then those people need to be responsible for them. We are completely out of the loop."

Mayor Neil Perry said he would have the health inspector and fire chief visit the site and that he would then report back to the full council, which meets Monday night. Fire Chief Tim Sheehy did not return phone calls seeking comment and Health Inspector Felix Zemel referred all calls to Perry.

Perry said in a text message Saturday that, according to his information, there are no violations at the hotel.

Andrea Surrette, who runs Alternative Home Health Care of Methuen — the company that provides staffing for the Days Inn shelter — said hundreds of people living at the Days Inn have been vaccinated and that she knows of no problems at the facility.

"I heard it was going well," she said, adding that it was "not true" that needles were being left around the neighborhood or that people were sleeping on benches.

"We have security on-site and we've gotten really good feedback," she said.

She added that nobody has complained to her agency nor has anyone visited the hotel in recent weeks.

"I'd like to try to resolve it if there are any problems," she said early last week. "They are welcome to come look, but not one person has come down to look around."

She said the shelter has been a great resource for people around the region, including many from Methuen who have taken advantage of the hotel and its services for people without housing.

"This is good for our state," she said. "We are vaccinating people from vulnerable populations. ... Nobody has died, nothing's going on. If there's an issue, pick up the phone and call us."

Police Capt. Randy Haggar said that there are issues, mostly belligerent people, overdoses, arguments in the lobby and a lot of medical calls.

"The Days Inn has been a constant issue," he said. "They still have issues over there. We respond there daily.

"It definitely puts a strain on our calls for service. "

This isn't the first time questions have come up about the hotel.

Last April, former Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, under state guidance and using state money, commandeered the Days Inn in Methuen and the DoubleTree by Hilton on River Road in Andover to be used for housing people who had been forced to move out of traditional homeless shelters due to the danger of living in close proximity during COVID-19.

Individuals and families were placed in separate rooms with separate bathroom facilities, reducing the potential spread of the disease. Many traditional homeless shelters were temporarily shuttered.

Using hotels for people without homes during the COVID-19 crisis is something being done around the state and the country, according to Kelly Turley, associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. And, she noted, it's likely to continue.

She said the Biden administration is sending billions of dollars as part of the $1.9 trillion relief package to states to continue using hotels for homeless people to try and limit the spread of disease.

"Before the pandemic, most adults in (traditional homeless) settings were sharing common areas," she said. "For families, there was a push during the pandemic to have as many people as possible have space to practice social distancing and not be exposed to other staff or guests."

That's when hotels became the preferred place to put people.

More recently, however, the immediate problem of infection has lessened as scores of people without homes have been vaccinated, per order of Gov. Charlie Baker, who sought to get the homeless population vaccinated when the vaccines first became available.

Now, as billions of dollars are slated to be injected into social services programs, there is a move to "stabilize people, keep them safe, and help people transition to more permanent housing," Turley said.

That permanent housing, in some cases, could actually be hotels that are converted to permanent housing units, she said.

In Quincy, a hotel is being converted to permanent housing for people in need, she said. Most of the people living in those kinds of situations would be single adults. Families, meanwhile, will be eligible for new vouchers that match the actual market rates of some rental units.

It is unclear if the Days Inn is under consideration as permanent housing for homeless people as the manager who runs the hotel did not return phone calls seeking comment. A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to a series of questions regarding the use of the hotel as a homeless shelter and if there were any problems associated with it.