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City, shelter adjusting ways to care for the homeless

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People line up to board the buses to the emergency homeless shelter on the city’s West Side on Wednesday. Service providers are balancing keeping the homeless population healthy with keeping them safe and fed during the pandemic. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A little more than two weeks after the state began seriously grappling with the spread of COVID-19, city officials say a hospital notified them about a homeless person who has tested positive for the virus.

Lisa Huval, the deputy director of the city’s housing and homelessness efforts, said she was told Friday evening that medical staff may have to transport someone from a hospital to the Westside Emergency Housing Center to stay in isolation. That hadn’t happened by Friday night.

Huval said she doesn’t know anything about where the person came from or who else the individual may have had contact with before being isolated.

The positive test comes as advocates adjust their procedures to minimize the risk of spreading the virus among the homeless population.

Huval said the city and Heading Home – the nonprofit that runs the Westside Emergency Housing Center – initially hoped to be able to screen everyone before they were bused 20 miles out to the facility.

But it turned out there weren’t enough Medical Reserve Corps volunteers or thermometers to do so.

She said the screenings at Coronado Park and Steelbridge, in Northwest Albuquerque, lasted one or two days. First Nations Community Healthsource staff is still screening people at God’s Warehouse off East Central before they are bused to the center.

“I think this is not perfect,” Huval said, referring to screening people after they have taken a bus ride with others. “We will be providing masks to staff who have been working at pickup points, so that if they do identify someone who has a cough, they’ll ask that person to wear a mask on the bus. We’re also going to be distributing hand sanitizer to staff at pickup points.”

The West Side center can now test homeless people on site, so they don’t have to be taken to another facility first.

On Wednesday, city officials said the One Albuquerque Fund was making a $50,000 contribution for emergency housing to pay for motel vouchers for people who are homeless. Huval said those vouchers are going to people who are waiting for their test results and who don’t have anywhere else to stay.

Bobby Sisneros, a spokesman for the Family and Community Services Department, said the vouchers would pay for 100 households to be housed for two weeks, or more people to be housed for a shorter period, or fewer people for a longer period. He said the motels will have to ensure they are following the governor’s directive to be at lower than 50% occupancy.

“If people need emergency housing, they should go to the Westside Emergency Housing Center,” Sisneros said. “We will be working with our medical partners to identify residents of the Westside Emergency Housing Center who need a motel voucher.”

Huval said five or six other homeless people have been tested, some of whom were negative. She said those awaiting their test results are staying in motels, paid for with vouchers from the city.

Also on Wednesday, the Rock at Noonday ministries decided to close its doors and is instead offering curbside to-go meals in an effort to comply with social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. The site has been a place where people have been able to go for a hot meal, to do a load of laundry or take a shower for more than 30 years.

“For the first time in my time at Noonday, I turned the corner coming to work and saw people walking away from my building instead of walking to it,” Executive Director Danny Whatley said. “I almost started crying, because I knew they would be on their own for the entire day.”

Whatley said he hopes that once the weather warms up, the facility can start serving hot meals in its parking lot.

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