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New London homeless shelter managing, with help, through pandemic

New London — Against the odds, the New London Homeless Hospitality Center has managed to avoid any positive COVID-19 cases at its facility off Huntington Street during the pandemic.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, during his visit to the city on Wednesday, called the work there “pretty extraordinary,” as well as a tangible example of how federal funding is reaching those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Murphy gathered with others under a heated tent outside the shelter — a tent funded through federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and used to help spread out shelter visitors.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Murphy said. “This is hard work, challenging work in good times, in normal times. And then to have been able to adapt with this level of success, to have that vision and to not have the problem overwhelm you. This is not happening in every community in Connecticut.”

The Rev. Cathy Zall, executive director of the shelter, outlined efforts to create a safe environment during the pandemic through a mix of collaborations with various civic and religious organizations and heaped praise on the city for its willingness to address and overcome challenges. 

One recent example of community coming together is establishment of a warming center at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Jay Street that is being used for overflow of shelter residents during cold nights when numbers at the shelter typically swell.

The 40-bed shelter, reduced to 35 beds to help with spacing, sees up to 60 people per night during the winter months. It would have been unhealthy to have people sleeping on the floors of the shelter’s office building, Zall said.

“I am a person of faith but I was shaken when we could not find a place. That would have been a prescription for disaster. We just couldn’t have them all inside,” Zall said.

All Souls answered the call for help, she said, and helped avoid what could have become a dire situation.

Numbers have not increased dramatically at the shelter since the pandemic. Even though more people are out of work, Zall suspects the moratorium on evictions has helped stem the tide of new homeless. It won’t last forever, however, and Zall said she expects a spike in homelessness when the moratorium is lifted and people remain months behind in rent.

The city, early in the pandemic, had rented a vacant former nursing home to house and isolate homeless COVID-19 positive patients. The nursing home has since closed because of the sparsity of cases. Anyone in need of quarantine is isolated at a local hotel until they test negative.

The various agencies working together to the benefit of the shelter include the city’s Human Services Department, Community Health Center, Ledge Light Health District, Yale New Haven Health, New London Community Meal Center and Connecticut Department of Housing. There are also a host of volunteers working in various roles that include cooking and delivering meals.

The shelter, meanwhile, continues the pursuit of stable permanent housing for shelter residents.

Murphy said he planned to relay stories of the shelter’s success to his colleagues in Washington as they make their case for another round of federal funding.

G.smith@theday.com

 

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