“I felt like I needed to do my part to help, and this was my chance.”
Frankie LoConte exhaled a satisfied sigh of relief through his surgical mask as he surveyed the progress. For days, he and his crew from the Mayor’s Office of Tourism, Sports, and Entertainment had been converting Nathan R. Miller Hall’s 172 dorm rooms at Suffolk University into shelters for those experiencing homelessness while the predicted peak of coronavirus pandemic looms.
LoConte and his crew typically take on missions for the tourism industry in town, producing events, supporting film and TV production, and marketing the Athens of America to convention-goers and visitors.
But in dire times, they’re using their minds and muscles to step up like minutemen back in the day.
“Christopher Cook, the chief of environment, energy, and open space spearheaded the project,” LoConte said. “He used to be the director of tourism years ago. He reached out to my current director, Kate Davis, and asked if anyone wanted to help to convert the dorms. Bill Leva, who co-manages the tech team with me, and a few of the other guys jumped at the chance to help.”
I first met LoConte a while ago, kindred malcontents smashing into sweat-sodden showgoers in circle pits, or singing along while he manned the microphone for the seminal hardcore punk band 26 Beers, or for the more melodic/less chaotic trio The Mercy Case. Today, it’s less about discontentment for the Eastie lifer, and all about duty to do right for his beloved hometown.
“We had crew guys there, doing some general labor stuff, but this is going to be an ongoing effort,” LoConte said. “We got new supplies being donated and delivered every day, like soap, shampoo, toothpaste and other essentials. We went to each room, dropped off the essentials. Sweepings, cleaning, prepping, making sure all of the essentials were ready for 10 beds per floor for four floors.”
According to one count last week, there were 1,441 people in Boston’s emergency shelters, with another 63 men and 17 women staying out on the street. The following morning, there were 1,160 homeless families in the shelters, the majority in scattered site apartments or congregate shelters, city data showed.
“When this emergency emerged about a month and a half ago, we knew we were going to kick into gear,” Department of Neighborhood Development spokesman Alex Sturke said. “Suffolk being in the center of the city was a perfect location to provide this shelter. The whole point of the project is about encouraging the effort to flatten the curve, and Suffolk dorms are perfect for social distancing.”
“This is the first step, with more schools and facilities coming together in the near future,” Sturke added. “This is all so unusual.”
Those in need of shelter can go to Boston’s regular shelters, where they will be screened and triaged to another location.
“Pine Street Inn is taking over control of admission and maintenance,” LoConte said. “We built a pretty good rapport with them this past week. They may need more help over the next few weeks and if they do, well be happy to head back over there.”
Last week, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told reporters at a press conference that the city recently confirmed its first case of coronavirus in the homeless community, and said officials would “act swiftly to prevent the virus from spreading.”
“We are fully committed to protecting all of our residents,” Walsh told the Dorchester Reporter. “Every single life is worth saving, and every single life is worth protecting.”
Experts have speculated that the height of the contagion is slated for April 10 through 20, creating a dire need to shelter and nourish the nomadic homeless population.
“These sites will enable us to get some of our most vulnerable guests, especially our elders, out of a crowded situation in our congregate shelters,” Lyndia Downie, president of Pine Street Inn, wrote in a press release.
The city also secured more than 240 additional beds to increase social distancing in existing shelters, built an isolation and quarantine facility with 38 beds at the Southampton Street shelter, set up 70 more beds in Brighton, and reopened the Newton Pavilion, a former Boston Medical Center hospital with 250 beds that will be operated by a consortium of providers.
“Mayor Walsh has been clear that the precautions and preparations the city, its institutions, and its residents take now will be critical to successfully responding to the crisis,” Suffolk University President Marisa Kelly said in a statement.
Kelly noted that 22 students had been living in Miller Hall as of Sunday, and would be relocated to a different residence hall.
Over the weekend, Boston opened a testing facility at Suffolk Downs, in LoConte’s neighborhood, for first responders. EMTs, firefighters and police officers can get tested at the facility.
“I come from a family of first responders,” LoConte said. “My wife is a nurse, my uncle and my cousins are police and people who dedicated their lives to helping people. I felt like I needed to do my part to help, and this was my chance. I’m thankful to have a crew and a coworker that felt the same way.”