When Española Pathways Shelter staff received permission in January to open a partial-capacity warming center, they already planned to close the shelter for tenant improvements before reopening at full capacity with increased services.
When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, it solved the dilemma of when to begin the temporary closure, but raised countless other questions on how to serve the city’s homeless population in a scenario for which no one was prepared.
Pathways Board President Ralph Martinez said distribution of tents and sleeping bags is one pending measure to fill the gap created by the closure. The facility at 628 North Riverside Drive will be open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. to distribute food and supplies.
He said staff will not kick out people who set up tents on shelter property, but that actively using the lot as a campground raised liability issues that still need to be explored.
“I think the whole world got blindsided,” he said. “We’re trying to vet through answers.”
Martinez also intends to pass out updated weekly flyers with health tips that outline the importance of social distancing and update the community on the status of the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends tents be kept 12 feet apart, and advises against local governments clearing homeless encampments during community spread of the virus.
Martinez, who was homeless on the streets of Española for six years himself, said drug users and methadone patients will face unique problems as supplies run dry or medication becomes more difficult to access.
“The biggest struggle we’re going to have is the withdrawals,” he said.
He said he is in talks with the local methadone clinic to potentially make their service mobile, though questions of logistics and liability still need to be fleshed out.
Clinic staff could not be reached for comment by press time.
The Harm Reduction Coalition recommends against sharing drug supplies for safer drug use amid the pandemic. Needles, pipes, cigarettes, and nasal tubes such as straws or dollar bills should not be shared.
They also recommend stocking up on naloxone and fentanyl test strips, as emergency services to treat overdoses may become strained. The Harm Reduction Coalition endorses preparing for withdrawals as the supply chain of addictive drugs will likely be disrupted.
New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness Executive Director Hank Hughes said in an interview that many homeless people already have compromised health that puts them at higher risk from COVID-19.
“Homeless people are vulnerable in a couple ways,” he said. “Their daily routine puts them around a lot of other people.”
He said access to disease testing is also limited due to a lack of transportation.
Access to basic sanitation, more important now than ever, has also been slashed for homeless people across the country. Restaurants, libraries, community centers, and most other locations with access to public restrooms have closed their doors.
Martinez said they are looking into placing a portable toilet in the shelter parking lot.
He anticipates tenant improvements will finish in early May if all goes well.
Hughes said the Coalition to End Homelessness is petitioning various levels of governments for funds to house the homeless in motels or hotels for their own safety and to reduce the spread of the virus.