March 13, 2020

Albuquerque working on strategy to protect homeless from coronavirus

U.S. Army

The City of Albuquerque is still working out the kinks in its plan to protect some of the most vulnerable of its populace – its homeless – during the coronavirus pandemic.

Albuquerque manages an emergency shelter, commonly called the West Side. It can house up to 450 people a night. Because of the outbreak of COVID-19, a type of coronavirus, officials have recommended washing hands regularly, staying at home and social distancing when engaging with others to prevent the spread of the disease. But people who are homeless might not be able to adapt as easily, according to advocates.

“All people who experience homelessness are at high risk,” Lisa Huval, Albuquerque’s deputy director of housing and homelessness, told NM Political Report.

Huval said the city has responded by quickly repairing some plumbing in an unused pod in the shelter, which is a former jail. Anyone suspected of being sick with COVID-19 will be placed into that isolation pod, which can hold up to 70 people.

But one problem the city hasn’t worked out yet is what happens if someone is placed into the pod who is sick but tests negative for COVID-19. Placement in the pod with others who have tested positive for the virus would likely put such a person at risk of catching it.

Huval said the city is trying to think through that.

So far, there are 10 presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in New Mexico and none of those are people who are homeless.

But if the pandemic does reach Albuquerque’s homeless population, Huval said the city is also still thinking through how it will respond if there are more than 70 people who need to be isolated.

She said some possibilities include opening up another pod in the shelter or possibly providing motel vouchers for social distancing.

“Or if sick, we’re similarly looking at other options,” Huval said.

Huval said the city is also working with the other Albuquerque shelters, which are managed by nonprofit social service organizations. 

“We’re all concerned,” Huval said of the city and its partners. “How do we isolate folks if they’re sick, how to get them rest and how to provide food?”

Huval said that if the city has to start isolating people who are homeless in the isolation pod, they will be able to access bathrooms and showers that are also isolated and they will be given meals in the isolated pod so they won’t come into contact with the rest of the shelter’s population.

The shelter is located about 20 miles west of downtown, near the Double Eagle Airport.

The screening will take place at the pickup points where a van picks up people who need overnight shelter. If a person shows signs of possibly having the virus, that person will be transported separately to the shelter.

Volunteers with the New Mexico Medical Reserve Corps will be doing the screening, Huval said. She said they are medical experts and will be wearing protective medical gear.

Huval said the isolation pod is “not the perfect solution.”

“There are still a lot of pieces we have to think through,” shel said.

The city hopes to be ready to implement its strategy starting this Friday night.