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Keeping the streets safe

Christine Barber, co-founder of Street Safe New Mexico, holds a bottle of homemade hand sanitizer. (Anthony Jackson/ Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Coronavirus symptom screenings. Care packages with hand sanitizer and face masks. Multipage pamphlets detailing information on the virus.

These are just a few of the tactics used by Street Safe New Mexico in its efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Albuquerque’s homeless population.

“COVID-19 just amplifies a lot of the inequities in the population and the challenges they face,” said Christine Barber, executive director and co-founder of the organization.

A hand-washing station outside Street Safe New Mexico. The organization provides people experiencing homelessness with COVID-19 care packages with mouthwash, hand sanitizer, face masks and other health products. (Anthony Jackson/ Albuquerque Journal)

Street Safe New Mexico has existed for 11 years as a nonprofit dedicated to keeping homeless women safe by combating sex trafficking and violence against women. The organization was founded after the discovery of the West Mesa victims, many of whom were sex workers and victims of sex trafficking.

The organization shifted its efforts in March and began targeting coronavirus outreach to homeless men and women in addition to its usual work.

Workers and volunteers now spend their days walking through the International District distributing essential products such as hand sanitizer, masks and hygiene products to those who want them – and fighting misinformation and conspiracy theories.

“We realized that people on the street weren’t getting the information,” Barber said. “A lot of them don’t have phones and they would just get it piecemeal, and they didn’t even know what was happening.”

Barber said it can be difficult to convince clients of the dangers of the virus, and the group has relied on a combination of peer pressure and posters with New Mexico case statistics to get their point across.

“We had to find the right talking points, the right tools that drove it home,” she said.

Even then, the group has had to rely on guerrilla methods to keep the virus on clients’ minds.

The organization screens any homeless people they encounter for symptoms of the virus, including a temperature check. Those with symptoms are directed to a testing site, or the mobile testing center run by Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless is called to administer a test on-site.

Testing has provided its own challenges, Barber said. Many do not want to be tested, and getting results back to people is made more difficult with the clearing of homeless encampments, which makes it harder to track down people.

The group also is holding a beauty day and providing glue-on pointed nails to their clients. Barber said she hopes the pointy nails will keep women from touching their faces.

Street Safe New Mexico is also working on installing an outdoor shower at its location, because the closure of community centers has made it more difficult for homeless women to find showers.

The increased outreach and distribution of supplies have resulted in increased costs and a greater need for donations.

“The money helps us keep going,” Barber said.

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