Aroostook County Action Program and University of Maine at Presque Isle staff set up cots at a temporary housing facility in the university's Wieden Hall Gym. Credit: Courtesy of the Rachel Rice

Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support our critical reporting on the coronavirus by purchasing a digital subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The Aroostook County Action Program and the University of Maine at Presque Isle have created a new temporary wellness shelter in the university’s gym in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The shelter, which will be operated by Aroostook County Action Program staff with the help of MaineHousing, will accommodate up to 20 people who are experiencing homelessness and who do not show any signs of the coronavirus.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Heidi Rackliffe, program coordinator and hope and prosperity resource director at the Aroostook County Action Program, said staff are still ironing out details as they hope to get the shelter open by the end of this week.

Rackliffe said the impetus behind the project began about a week and a half ago when she heard that the Sister Mary O’Donnell Emergency Homeless Shelter in Presque Isle was considered at capacity. It couldn’t take in more people while maintaining physical distance between residents.

The Aroostook County Action Program initially funded several hotel rooms for those who are homeless. Concerned about future funding for that endeavor, and aware that other universities within the University of Maine System were opening themselves up for temporary housing, it contacted the University of Maine at Presque Isle about setting up a temporary shelter.

She said staff would take several precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the facility — beds will be 10 feet apart, temperatures checked daily, signs of illness — such as respiratory issues — examined by staff and surfaces frequently disinfected.

[What you should know about social distancing, self-quarantine and self-isolation]

While Rackliffe said she was prepared for residents to “be human” and potentially not abide entirely by guidelines, she had faith they would recognize the nature of the situation and do their best.

“There is a kind of agreement coming into this facility that staffers are putting themselves at risk,” Rackliffe said. “We need each other to make this work.”

The development of the shelter is part of a more significant effort by the University of Maine System to help contain COVID-19 within the state. On March 21, the University of Maine System signed a memorandum of understanding with the Maine Emergency Management Agency to coordinate the use of its facilities and services during this time.

Ben Shaw, chief business officer at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, said Wieden Hall was chosen because of its size and suitability for housing, including several bathrooms and showers in the building.

Shaw said the university was drawn to help by the precarious situation of the local homeless population and the ample amount of unused university space. He said the COVID-19 pandemic was limiting housing options for those who are homeless, especially in months that are still fairly cold.

The Aroostook County Action Program and the University of Maine at Presque Isle said they would work to ensure a “buffer” between the approximately 30 students still residing on campus and those living at the shelter. Shaw said the gym had previously been closed to students.

The shelter will operate 24/7, with two staff members working at all times. Meals will be provided on-premises by Sodexo. The University of Maine at Presque Isle plans to set up a wi-fi network for guests, as well as provide phones, a TV and laptops for use in the shelter.

[Coronavirus could overwhelm Maine hospitals. Social distancing can save beds and lives.]

The shelter is well-covered in terms of supplies though organizers are seeking alternative means to acquire some items. The Aroostook County Emergency Management Agency is supplying cots, and the Aroostook County Action Program said it was working with United Way of Aroostook for other supplies, including bedding.

Organizers are also asking the public to chip in if they can: they have released an Amazon wish list featuring needed supplies, including pillows, snacks, towels and deodorant.

The city of Presque Isle, Maine State Housing Authority and Homeless Services of Aroostook were also involved in the effort.

Rackliffe said the logistics involved in designing and building the shelter were intense, with many people working hard on a project they see as critical to the health of the entire community.

“It’s something that needs to be done,” Rackliffe said. “At the end of the day, even though it’s a scary time, it’s a need that can’t go unmatched.”

Watch: Nirav Shah on risk

[bdnvideo id=”2960764″]