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Exposed and at risk

Eric, who has been homeless since he moved to Albuquerque in 2017, stains his bike with varnish in front of his tent north of Downtown. He said he’s not eager to go to the Westside Emergency Housing Center. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Events have been postponed, schools have been ordered to shut down for weeks, and even some church leaders have canceled services, but homeless shelters and meal sites – serving hundreds of people who are likely at high risk for complications from COVID-19 – are staying open.

This poses challenges for medical providers, staff who work at shelters around the city and advocates as they try to figure out how to best keep homeless people safe and the virus from running rampant.

“They go to a meal site where there might be 100 to 300 people eating dinner or lunch at the same time. They’re going to a shelter where there are a lot of people sleeping in relatively close proximity to each other,” said Lisa Huval, the deputy director of the city’s housing and homelessness efforts. “I think without really proactive efforts – because this is very contagious – this could easily spread at some of these sites that serve a large volume of people at one point in time.”

Huval said service providers, city, county and state officials and representatives from the New Mexico Department of Health have been holding regular conference calls trying to figure out the best way to keep homeless people from contracting COVID-19 and spreading the virus throughout the population.

She said that the Albuquerque area has nine shelters with a total of about 900 beds.

“Individual shelters and other places are working through their own plans,” Huval said. “The city has a role to play in just bringing all these stakeholders together and also identifying where are the core challenges.”

High risk factors

It’s difficult to determine exactly how many homeless people live in Albuquerque, and the numbers fluctuate night by night, month by month.

Officials estimate that approximately 5,000 households experience homelessness over the course of a year in Albuquerque.

A spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Health said the department doesn’t know whether anyone who has been tested for COVID-19 is homeless. But authorities have said the majority of the people who have tested positive for the virus so far contracted it while traveling or through contact with household members who tested positive.

Francisco Avila wipes down a desk in the men’s dorms at the Westside Emergency Housing Center on Thursday night. Staff is cleaning all surfaces every two hours to try to prevent coronavirus from spreading. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Huval said there is no evidence that rates of infection are higher among homeless people, but that several factors could make the majority more susceptible to severe symptoms. Although coronavirus is highly infectious, it is deadliest for older people and those with compromised immune systems.

“We think people experiencing homelessness are definitely at high risk of having complications if they do contract COVID-19,” Huval said. “One is that many folks are older, many also have underlying health conditions, which we know is another high risk factor, and of course, people have difficult life situations and that can compromise their immune system and make them more vulnerable to illness.”

Jenny Metzler, the executive director of Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless, also noted that many of the preventative measures people are taking to head off the spread of the virus – such as frequent hand washing, quarantining and social distancing – are much more challenging for those who don’t have homes.

“People are living either in encampments or very crowded shelters or other settings,” Metzler said. “Of course it’s exacerbated and exponential almost by definition.”

She said her facility has not recommended any of its clients get tested yet, but they are anticipating that will be a challenge, too. “If we have people who need to be screened and assessed and need to be referred for a test, are they going to get on public transit? Do we have our staff transport them,” Metzler asked. “We’re talking to (city and state officials) and trying to think how there could be a better systems approach.”

Screenings soon

The Westside Emergency Housing Center, the city’s largest shelter 20 miles outside town, serves between 300 and 450 men, women and families each night and employs 82 workers with 22 on staff at a time.

Huval said the center’s staff have set up a pod, which can sleep between 50 and 75 people, to use as an isolation unit for those who might be experiencing symptoms. She said they hope to start conducting screenings, including taking temperatures, at the pickup locations before people get on the bus to the shelter.

The Medical Reserve Corps could start screenings people at pickup locations at Coronado Park north of Downtown and God’s Warehouse on East Central as early as Monday.

“We’re going to have tents set up so we can provide some degree of privacy for people as they’re being asked these screening questions,” Huval said. “If someone answers ‘yes’ to the screening questions, they will be transported out to the Westside Emergency Housing Center in a van specifically set aside for that purpose.”

Huval said that at the shelter they will keep people who might have COVID-19 in separate rooms until they can get tested and the results returned. If the test comes back positive, they will be kept in an isolated pod with other people who also tested positive.

Marco Rodriguez mops the waiting room at the Westside Emergency Housing Center on Thursday night. Staff is cleaning all surfaces twice as often as usual to try to prevent coronavirus from spreading. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis / Journal)

“Those folks will be in the isolation pod for whatever period of time they need to stay, I assume that’s the 14 days or until they recover,” Huval said.

She said staff will also look for people who may start experiencing symptoms while they’re at the shelter, and workers are cleaning all surfaces every two hours.

Providing care

In response to questions, an NMDOH spokesman said the department is concerned about homeless populations contacting COVID-19.

“We are working and communicating with homeless advocates and service providers in New Mexico to implement and adapt CDC guidance for our state’s homeless population,” spokesman David Morgan wrote in an email.

Metzler said her staff has been talking with Health Care for the Homeless sites across the country about what they are doing to address the outbreak and how to keep their staff healthy and able to continue providing care for those who need it.

She said they are also considering ways to reach those who don’t feel comfortable going to get services.

“We’re looking at very possibly mobilizing street medicine for people who are not coming into shelters or clinics so we can reach them and really make sure we can get our services out to people,” Metzler said.

North of Downtown on Friday morning, many homeless people continued to gather in small groups or encampments on sidewalks and city parks.

One man, Eric, who has been homeless since he moved to Albuquerque in 2017 said he plans to take his chances on the streets, living in a tent in an encampment with a couple of other people, rather than going to a shelter.

Last December, Eric said, he got sick with the flu twice at the shelter and he is not eager to return.

However, he said, he’s not consumed with worry over the virus, either.

“I know everyone else is worried about it, but we can’t choose when we go,” Eric said.


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