LAWRENCE -- The city is opening two emergency homeless shelters for people who need to quarantine either because they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or been exposed to it.

Starting Friday, 80 rooms at the Double Tree by Hilton on River Road in Andover have been designated for use by families or individuals who are homeless, or soon will be, and who have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the deadly disease.

Based on guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Public Health, anyone who has been within six feet of a person with coronavirus for longer than 15 minutes is considered at risk and needs to be quarantined for 14 days.

Homeless people who actually have the virus are being given a couple of options. According to a press release issued by Mayor Daniel Rivera Thursday, a shelter for homeless people who have tested positive for COVID-19 has been opened in Lexington. It currently houses 13 patients. MEMA, or the Mass. Emergency Management Agency, is providing transportation to that shelter.

In addition, within two weeks the city will open a shelter in Lawrence with 16 beds for homeless people who have coronavirus. The location of that shelter is not being released as final details are still being worked out.

Rivera said the plan announced on Thursday has been in the works for weeks and is intended to take care of people who are "housing insecure," living paycheck to paycheck and who have been immediately affected by job loss, loss of health insurance, and other issues related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Neither of the shelters is meant to take care of the "chronically homeless," many of whom suffer from drug and alcohol addiction and are the most difficult to find housing for.

“These emergency shelters will go a long way in helping us to stop the spread (of coronavirus) in Lawrence while also giving a safe space to shelter for our most vulnerable population,” Rivera said.

The mayor rejected a proposal by MEMA to erect a tent near the Daybreak Shelter for chronically homeless people so they could "social distance." Rivera said the offer came with "no staff and no resources."

He added: “Their needs will only be made worse by a tent. The tent would fail to get the social distancing done because these populations do not comply with general guidelines in times when there is no emergency, never mind during a pandemic."

The tent was proposed in a location that is near a 150-unit family housing project and two, 12-story elderly housing buildings.

“A tent with no staff, no dollars, and no assurance that it will not put other people in danger is not helpful,” Rivera said. “The city of Lawrence is doing all it can with the small resources we have to address the housing insecure and those teetering on homelessness; especially the families in our public school system.”

While the two emergency shelters will help solve a short-term problem of people coping with or suffering from coronavirus and homelessness, Rivera said the larger problem of chronic homelessness in Lawrence remains.

"The responsibility cannot fall solely on the city of Lawrence," he said. "We are willing to play a role and to even facilitate federal and state money to a joint effort, but it is time to branch out and set up emergency housing throughout the Merrimack Valley -- not just in the densest community in the area. It’s a matter of environmental justice and equity. "


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