MILFORD — During the peak of the coronavirus pandemic outbreak in March, while many services in the Milford community were shutting down, the Beth-El Center remained open to serve the community.

“We never closed,” said Executive Director Jenn Paradis.

The center, which has been open on New Haven Ave. since 1981 providing shelter, outreach and a food kitchen to the Greater Milford area, has seen about a 70 percent increase in those needing emergency food support since last year. It’s currently serving about 3,000 meals a month. Patrons are a combination of seniors, families and the homeless. The center receives its funding through a combination of corporate and individual donations, and local, state and federal programs.

Prior to the pandemic, the homeless community would often utilize spaces such as the library and mall, and other public spaces in the city for shelter. However, beginning in mid-March, most of those facilities started to shut down.

“When we first started to see the initial responses to COVID-19 in the Milford community and statewide, we committed ourselves to trying to expand our programs and services as much as possible while keeping things safe,” Paradis said. “We committed ourselves very, very early on that we would not close our doors and would open ourselves up as much as possible.”

She added the center was very focused at that time on making sure that “first and foremost, the folks that we serve who were unsheltered could have their basic needs met.”

That includes having access to bathrooms, showers and personal protective equipment, and education on how to appropriately use the PPE.

“We want to make sure that anybody in our community who is unsheltered has the ability to protect themselves and knows how to protect others from the spread of COVID-19,” Paradis said. She added that the center also provides a supply of clean, comfortable masks.

In March, the center’s soup kitchen, which had previously served sit-down, dine-in meals, pivoted to serving meals to go. It’s still serving two bagged meals daily.

In early August, when the state headed into Phase 2 of its reopening plan, the center decided against reopening for sit-down meal service.

“The population we serve is incredibly vulnerable and the volunteers who have traditionally served in this program are very vulnerable,” she said. “Resuming indoor dining service at any percentage is not possible.”

As a result, many people who receive meals from the shelter have been eating them in its parking lot. Others have been eating at local parks. Others bring the food home.

Additionally, since April, the center has doubled its shelter capacity. To make that possible, it used a local motel to provide shelter.

“We got 20 rooms at Motel 6,” Paradis said. “We closed that program on Sept. 30 and everyone has now been transitioned to permanent housing.”

Today, the center is operating at 80 percent capacity in order to comply with the state’s COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. The staff is looking ahead to the winter months in order to see what changes would be needed to continue to provide shelter and food safely during the pandemic.

“We have about 28 beds in our emergency shelter program. There are an additional 25 beds when our no-freeze shelter opens up,” Paradis said.

The no-freeze shelter, which is for those who just need to stay for the night to get out of the cold, is open from the first freeze through March or April.

COVID-19-related unemployment also has been a “huge concern” to those that use the shelter, according to Paradis.

“We have noticed that some of the households we serve are from families whose food costs have gone up since everyone is now home,” she said. “We have families that have been directly impacted by COVID, and have lost their loved one who has been the primary earner in the household.”

And as part of the COVID awareness, the center is testing everyone who comes inside every 14 days.

“We had one positive test in the past seven months,” she said. “There has been zero community spread.”

Within 45 minutes of getting the test results back, the person who tested positive was isolated in a hotel room.

sfox@milfordmirror.com