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City leaders use Portland Expo to help prevent spread of coronavirus in homeless population

In an emergency workshop Wednesday evening, Portland city leaders discussed the status of the local homeless shelters during the COVID-19, coronavirus outbreak

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland city councilors held an emergency remote workshop Wednesday evening to discuss the city's effort to control the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus in its homeless population. As the state has ordered Mainers to stay at home to prevent the health care system from becoming overwhelmed, it appears that may already be the case for resources for Portland's homeless. 

With area homeless shelters at max capacity, the city is now using the Portland Expo as a site for homeless people who have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19, to quarantine. However, they say they can't force anyone to actually stay put once they are there. And with one Portland police officer and three staff tasked with monitoring the Expo, city leaders made the call for volunteers to help with that.

City Manager Jon Jennings addressed all nine members of the council on swift action taken to open the Portland Expo as a quarantine to 67 individuals exposed to two confirmed COVID-19 cases. Only 38 people voluntarily spent the night at the Expo, according to Kristin Dow, the director at Portland Health and Human Services. 


A woman from Massachusetts and a man from San Francisco tested positive for the new coronavirus and had been at the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland. Jennings says they attempted to put both in isolation, the man has been cooperative, but the woman has not been cooperative and fled to Massachusetts. Portland Police detectives tracked her down in Boston and authorities found her at an Amtrak station. She has since been sent to a hospital, according to the city.

Jennings also detailed one man who was upset and "intentionally coughed" on the staff director at the Expo. He was arrested and may face charges. Although the exact charges weren't immediately clear. The staff member, if exposed, will be subject to quarantine as well.

But the Portland Expo isn't the only place of concern for Portland right now. The city's Bayside neighborhood was described in the meeting by councilor Kim Cook of District 5 to be a place of "lawlessness that had just taken over."

"It's just not safe from a public health standpoint on the epidemic and it's just not acceptable for the people who live there or for anyone to endure and be under threat, really, from the situation," said Cook.

Councilor Cook encouraged Jennings to reach out to the governor to potentially utilize state resources to help secure the area, especially if the jail does not want to take in additional inmates during the pandemic.

Jennings concurred and called the behavior in Bayside "unacceptable." He said over the years he has been in contact with Portland Police to designate more resources in the area and asked for federal partners, including drug enforcement agents, to get involved.

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"I can't get into the details specifically, but there have been any number of effective interventions [since] last fall," said Jennings. "We are going to continue to do that, I assure you, of that. You are absolutely right, we've got to restore order. There is a sense of lawlessness that, 'I can do anything that I want to, any place I want to do it. If it is your backyard, I don't really care, I can do it there.'"

Jennings said as long as he is a city manager he will consider this issue a top priority.

"It's just making sure we do it fairly, we do it effectively, but we have to reclaim that part of Bayside."

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Jennings told councilors he will close off the Oxford Street Shelter to new homeless individuals to protect the 608 documented people they are already caring for in the area. The 608 people have registered with the shelter over the past 90 days. Jennings said the shelter staff was able to use data collected to track down the 67 people originally exposed. 

The Family Shelter will be used to temporarily house people who test positive or are showing symptoms of COVID-19. As for the healthy families originally staying at the Family Shelter, they have been moved to motels. 

The Portland Expo was opened for those who have been exposed to someone who has had a confirmed case as a place to quarantine. Dow says the original 38 people will be there for 14 days from exposure from each positive case, which she estimates will last until at least April 8. Jennings told councilors the city does not have any power to keep those being quarantined at the Expo, and that three staff members and one police officer are there.

At NEWS CENTER Maine, we're focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus

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