INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM

New Mexico's confused efforts to protect the homeless from COVID-19

SANTA FE — Two weeks after Mayor Alan Webber declared that he didn’t have any answers for protecting the city’s 200 or more homeless people against the novel coronavirus, Santa Fe has become one of the first cities in the nation to lodge them in hotels without waiting for symptoms or positive test results.


Residents of Casa Familia and the Men’s Emergency Shelter (both run by St. Elizabeth Shelter) are moving to individual rooms at the Sage Inn today, March 30, while about half the residents of Pete’s Place (the Interfaith Community Shelter) were housed at the GreenTree Inn, starting last Tuesday. All were asymptomatic of the virus.


The decision reflects a sharp turnaround in policy that Webber described first and foremost as a matter of public health. “Each of us that has a home? Stay there,” he said. “If you don't have one, we'll try to provide one. We all have the chance to get [the virus], but more importantly we all have the potential to infect other people.” 


It’s been a head-spinning month for homeless advocates, one filled with often contradictory information from medical experts. On March 18, New Mexico’s state epidemiologist David Selvage told shelter directors that the “vast majority” of coronavirus cases were spread by people who exhibit symptoms such as fever and cough. That claim is contradicted by the public statements of Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and by numerous reports that detail the threat posed by asymptomatic carriers.


With little initial guidance from either the city or the state, Santa Fe’s homeless shelters attempted to follow federal guidelines. They required residents to sleep head to toe — one person in a bed facing one way, the person in the next bed facing the other — with beds arranged 6 feet apart as space permitted.


Soon, the shelters began instituting their own protocols. Employees at Saint Elizabeth began routinely taking temperatures, handing out surgical masks to anyone with a cough and disinfecting surfaces every half hour. 


Joseph Jordan-Berenis, director of the Interfaith Community Shelter, managed to reduce his shelter’s capacity to about half to allow for social distancing in Pete’s Place. He chose carefully, only sending those to the GreenTree Inn “who are medically fragile, over the age of 60, and going to behave themselves.” (Pete’s Place is a “wet” shelter, meaning that it doesn’t require abstinence from alcohol or drugs, as many other places do.)


For weeks, medical experts have been warning that the 3,000 or so homeless people in New Mexico are particularly at risk of contracting COVID-19. That’s because in crowded shelters, “there’s almost no way for people to be effectively quarantined,” said Hank Hughes, executive director of New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness.

Photos by Don J. Usner

 

On March 10, the day before the first case was announced in New Mexico, life among Albuquerque’s homeless population was business as usual. In Coronado Park, a man who called himself Red shared a joint with some friends as cars rushed past on nearby I-40. “We aren’t afraid of germs,” said Marge Pettit, as the five friends crowded together on a blanket, grocery carts piled high nearby, looking out on groups of homeless people at picnic tables, on the ground beneath trees, and sitting in a line along a curb. 


When a homeless man in Albuquerque tested positive on March 27, it came as no surprise to shelter staff. They did, however, seem unprepared. Upon arrival at Westside Emergency Housing Center, the man was quickly isolated and tested — but only after he had spent nearly half an hour enclosed in a van full of people, all of whom were then let loose to circulate among the general population in the 400-bed shelter. 


Close personal contact is just one of the ways that homelessness in New Mexico, a desperate situation in the best of times, has become more dangerous amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Basic human necessities —  housing, medical care, hand-washing stations and portable toilets — are more important now than ever, according to the Nashville-based National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

That organization has gone so far as to suggest that shelters may actually pose a greater health threat than sleeping outside in isolated encampments. “Closing down encampments or forcing [people] into a shelter may expose them to an even higher risk,” said Barbara DiPietro, the organization’s policy director.

 

DiPietro has helped shape the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s most recent coronavirus guidelines for the homeless, which includes advice to leave encampments alone, allow enough room for “at least 12 feet x 12 feet of space per individual,” and ensure access to bathrooms, portable toilets and handwashing stations.


In Albuquerque, the crisis appears to have exacerbated long-standing issues between the police department and the city’s estimated 1,500 homeless people. Red said that the city has “stepped up warrant sweeps over the last couple of months.” His friend Pettit concurred, saying that as of March 18, APD was still conducting sweeps in homeless encampments and parks.


A March 26 email from APD confirmed as much: “Our officers are still committed to community policing, which means they work closely with city departments, non-profit partners and our neighbors to address homeless encampments and ensuring people have access to services," it stated. "However, if people are breaking the law by trespassing and blocking access to businesses, or they have warrants for crimes, they can be arrested.”


Last week, Albuquerque allocated $50,000 for motel vouchers to homeless people who show symptoms and are still awaiting test results. The money won’t last long. According to one report, it will house 100 people for just two weeks.

Photos by Don J. Usner

 

The $500,000 allocated by the Santa Fe City Council will certainly go a lot further, though no one knows how long it will last. “It’s the single largest effort we can make to interrupt and curtail the virus,” said Webber. “By meeting their needs, we’ll meet the needs of everyone in the city.”


But the underlying problems of homelessness — mental illness, substance abuse, dire poverty — now pose whole new challenges in an era of social distancing and isolation. 


“The thing I keep thinking about is that a lot of the people we serve hang out at Allsup’s,” said Jordan-Berenis, who waited all weekend for the test results of a resident who had been taken to the hospital with a 104-degree temperature. This morning, he found out that her test came back negative for coronavirus. 


“They could be asymptomatic, carrying the virus, and easily spread it. All they have to do is touch the door handle, and then the next person in … guess what?”

Rachel Mabe is a freelance writer based in New Mexico. 

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Images by Don Usner