Editor’s note: Today, the Journal concludes its Help for the Holidays series, which spotlights areas in which community members can reach out to neighbors in need.
“Shelter in place” has become an all-too-familiar phrase in 2020.
Residents have been asked to stay home and hunker down during this year’s coronavirus pandemic surges. New Mexicans have faced two partial economic shutdowns, with only essential businesses allowed to remain open amid strong warnings that whenever possible, people should simply stay home.
But sheltering in place is not that simple for some vulnerable members of the population. COVID-19 shutdowns have triggered financial hardships and job losses, forcing many to seek alternative places to shelter.
“I don’t know exactly how much of it’s COVID-related, but we’ve been filling more than 600 shelter beds every night this month,” said Bobby Cisneros, the city of Albuquerque’s planning manager. “That’s an absolute record. Last year, even in the coldest months, we were only filling around 400. I have to think the pandemic’s a major factor.”
Need has increased for nonprofit agencies serving the homeless, as well, and pandemic issues have made providing relief more difficult. Coronavirus outbreaks have occurred at Albuquerque shelters, requiring residents to be tested and, in some cases, quarantined when results are positive.
Joy Junction had to temporarily stop accepting new residents at its Southwest Albuquerque shelter in November after 32 guests and several staff members tested positive for COVID-19. CEO Elma Reynalds said guests who tested positive were moved to a barracks-style facility where they could be isolated.
“We had to lock down,” Reynalds said. “We couldn’t accept new people, and if anyone left the facility they had to have a negative COVID test before they came back. It makes things a lot more complicated, but we have to protect our residents and our staff.”
John Weisberger was one of the staff members who tested positive before Joy Junction’s lockdown. The 55-year-old front desk manager spent nearly two weeks isolating at home.
“I got the call on Halloween that I’d tested positive,” Weisberger said. “It was really bad timing, because my wife, Patsy, had just undergone major eye surgery.
“I ended up getting sick – fever, dry cough and loss of appetite – and I thought, ‘Man, this isn’t good.’ I basically stayed in one bedroom, my wife stayed in another, and my son took care of us.”
Weisberger said his son, Jason, later tested positive for COVID-19 but remained asymptomatic.
Weisberger said the outbreak at Joy Junction occurred after just one resident tested positive at an Oct. 23 screening. The ensuing shutdown served as an eye-opener, he said.
“We had been pretty careful before that,” he said, “but we’ve stepped up our protocols. We’re testing weekly here now, and I have to give kudos to the (New Mexico Department of Health) for working with us. We had our outbreak, but we got things under control pretty quickly and were able to start accepting people again.”
Other local organizations dedicated to helping fight homelessness face similar pandemic challenges. Good Shepherd Center in Southwest Albuquerque, for example, recently added a post to its website’s home page saying it is welcoming guests “with negative COVID-19 tests.”
Shelters have been working with a number of health care partners to make testing accessible for people who need housing assistance. One of them is Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, which has added coronavirus testing to its already full winter plate. AHCH does not do fixed-site testing but provides access on the streets, said Anita Cordova, the organization’s chief advancement officer.
Cordova said COVID-19 response has made AHCH “super-busy,” but she says responding to health crises is one of the organization’s primary missions.
“We help to provide testing and work with shelters and other organizations to provide hotel room vouchers for at-risk people,” Cordova said. “If someone has to wait for test results or can’t get into a shelter right away, we look for alternatives. Having someone sleep on the streets is not an option.”
As coronavirus cases have spiked in New Mexico and elsewhere in recent months, Cisneros said, several businesses and organizations have banded together to fight housing insecurity during the pandemic.
“It’s a big challenge, but I can say we’ve built a pretty solid system,” Cisneros said. “Between the city, county, state and the nonprofits, we’ve been keeping up with things pretty well. If the need rises, we’ll be ready.”
Cisneros conceded that the number of people seeking shelter may increase soon. Despite the rollout of coronavirus vaccines, case numbers are expected to keep rising into the new year, creating more economic hardship.
Also, a federal moratorium on evictions is scheduled to expire Thursday. If it is not extended, the number of people seeking temporary shelter could rise sharply in early 2021.
“If the moratorium expires, that’s definitely going to create some havoc,” said Nate Jennings, resettlement project manager at Good Shepherd Center. “That’s something we’re working to address right now because it could impact a lot of people.”
Pandemic restrictions have also reduced local agencies’ ability to attract and utilize volunteers, further complicating an already difficult task. While some volunteers are still being put to work, donations are urgently needed this holiday season.
“The donations we get help get people housed,” Cisneros said. “It’s that simple.”
Weisberger said his family’s personal experience with COVID-19 has made him all the more eager to help others who’ve been hurt by the pandemic.
“We’ve taken calls from people who’ve lost their jobs because of COVID, and you feel for them,” he said. “It was hard when we had to lock down, but now we’re back to helping people, and I’m glad. That’s what we’re here for. That’s what we do.”