For most people, the stay-at-home orders issued by state governors in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak were an inconvenient but simple means of slowing the spread of the virus. But what are you supposed to do if you don’t have a home in which to stay?
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 567,715 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States in January 2019. For those still lacking permanent housing by March 2020, the coronavirus presented not just another thing to worry about, it threatened — and continues to jeopardize — their ability to receive services and temporary housing that many of them depend on.
Gallup — Worst case scenarioIf any one town can be dubbed the epicenter of the coronavirus in the Southwest, it’s Gallup, New Mexico. Despite only having 3.5% of New Mexico’s population, McKinley County had a quarter of the state’s cases and 35% of its coronavirus-related deaths as of July 9. That fact has wreaked havoc on the town and its surrounding communities. On May 1, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham locked down the city — barricading the highway off-ramps and closing Gallup’s streets to incoming traffic.
When it comes to the spread of the virus, an individual — and the communities he represents — has become the scapegoat for McKinley County: a homeless man, presumed to be Navajo, who was brought into Na’Nizhoozhi Center Inc., a detox facility, in early April. It’s impossible to confirm anything because patient records are confidential, but according to The Albuquerque Journal, the man was the facility’s first positive case of COVID-19. He came into contact with 170 people, 110 of which the newspaper’s sources say tested positive in turn. Medical officials say that outbreak contributed significantly to the county’s high number of cases and also the spread of the virus throughout the neighboring Navajo Nation, one of the areas hardest hit by the virus in the country.
Some pointed toward Gallup’s massive unhoused population, which fluctuates between 600 and 1,500 people on any given day, with many coming and going across the border of the Navajo Nation. To minimize viral transmission within the population, the town arranged for four local hotels to shelter the homeless, also providing them with food and healthcare — to the chagrin of some, who thought resources would be better spent elsewhere.
The spread of the virus inflamed racial tensions around the region — a full month before the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers would do the same for the rest of the country. In Page, Arizona, a man was arrested for encouraging people to use “lethal force” against the Navajo people because they were “100% infected.” In Grants, New Mexico, Mayor Martin Hicks asserted that Navajos were to blame for spreading COVID-19 through the region, telling the New York Times, “We didn’t take it to them, they brought it to us.”
Cortez — Hard decisionsTo some extent, how well an area and its unhoused work through the epidemic seems to stem from the resources it already had in place before the virus hit.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, the Bridge Emergency Shelter in Cortez had three programs: a homeless shelter, transitional housing, and day labor center. It has since permanently closed the day labor center. Instead, the Bridge is choosing to focus on setting up paid internships that can help the unemployed find jobs, especially as day labor becomes less utilized during the epidemic, director Laurie Knutson said. And the staff of the center were not the only ones that had to make some tough decisions.
During normal operations, residents at the shelter must leave early in the morning and return at night. In order to comply with shelter-in-place restrictions, though, they would have to stay at the facility for 24 hours a day from March 27 through the end of April, when the order expired. Normally, 30 to 40 people take shelter at the Bridge, Knutson said, and of the 30 who chose to shelter-in-place there, only 10 remained when the order was lifted.
“What we were not anticipating was that sheltering in place would be so difficult for so many homeless guests who struggle with alcohol or other substances or mental illness,” she said. “It was disheartening to realize that even with all the risks of going out there onto the street, that was necessary for them to take care of what they thought they needed.”
Nine of the 10 people who made it through sheltering-in-place have moved into transitional housing at the Bridge — and can now come and go as they please. None of them have tested positive for the virus.
Temperature checks and social distancing are being instrumented throughout the shelter’s operations in advance of its reopening in October (the shelter is closed from May through September). The staff that handles intake at the shelter, where guests must blow into a breathalyzer, may get face shields to help deal with the higher risk of transmission.
Knutson worries, however, about the lack of volunteers the center faces. Most of its usual volunteers are of retirement age, and the moment the epidemic hit, they disappeared — not because they didn’t want to help, but out of concern for their own safety, she said. She is also concerned about families in Montezuma County who are getting behind on their rent as they remain unemployed. The county has no family homeless rooms, so it’s unclear where they’ll be able to go if they get evicted.
Durango — Team effort“We’re fairing pretty good here actually,” said Tim Sargent, the camp leader at the Purple Cliffs. At the city-designated homeless camp south of downtown Durango, campers share a significant amount of space. But Sargent isn’t wrong – San Juan Basin Public Health provided testing at the campsite and at Manna’s soup kitchen on June 3, 4, and 29. Based on the first round of test results, nobody in Durango’s unhoused community has tested positive for the virus.
COVID-19 has had an effect on every Durango organization that supports the homeless community. But one way or another, they’ve all been able to continue providing services.
Manna, for instance, was forced to close its dining room where 50 to 100 people typically eat every day, on March 18. It won’t be able to reopen it in the foreseeable future, said Program Services manager Marissa Hunt. But the soup kitchen was able to pivot into providing grab-and-go meals at a meal station with a hand-washing area at the back of the facility. At the same time, their partnership with Southwest Rides shifted from shuttling people between the Purple Cliffs and Manna to delivering food from one to the other.
In June, Manna provided just over 9,000 meals, down a couple thousand from the 11,000 it provided in April, at the peak of the quarantine.
Manna is also continuing to provide other services via phone, computer, and socially-distant outdoor meetings. These include helping people sign up for SNAP assistance, get new IDs or driver’s licenses, and providing bus passes and tokens and vouchers for the United Methodist Thrift Store.
When it closed the dining room, Manna also shut down its showers and laundry services, Hunt said, “but luckily, people were able to kind of step up in certain situations and fill those gaps that became apparent during COVID for not only us, but for resources throughout the community.”
With cooperation and donations from other organizations and individuals, the Neighbors in Need Alliance was able to help construct a variety of community resources at the Purple Cliffs site over the last few months. These include a community shelter, a kitchen, a shower, tanks for 560 gallons of potable water, a hand-wash station, a food donation box, a bulletin board, a solar cell phone-charging station, and a basketball hoop. Portable toilet and dumpster services were already being taken care of through the county.
Jim Micikas, NINA’s point person at the Purple Cliffs, handles that organization’s requests from the campsite’s residents.
“The requests are very reasonable,” he said. “I haven’t found a request that is over the top by any means from the people at Purple Cliffs. Nina has paid for everything that I’ve requested from them or have them build.”
Through the help of several grants, Community Compassion Outreach was able to relocate 21 unhoused residents from La Plata and Montezuma counties, who also fell into high-risk categories for the virus, into temporary housing in motel rooms. The grants also allowed the non-profit to help people facing eviction pay rent. Those programs came to an end, though, when the funding ran out, CCO executive director Donna Mae Baukat said.
While they don’t represent Durango’s entire unhoused community — some choose to live in wooded areas, near the river, or in other places around town — the residents of the Purple Cliffs seem to be managing the epidemic relatively well.
“Everybody out there has stepped up their hygiene game and they’ve also done an incredible job coming together as a homeless community, with a lot more communication than all the other camps in the past,” said Richard Dilworth, the Business Improvement District’s homeless outreach coordinator. “In some ways, this virus has brought a lot of people together and has also brought the unhoused together on new levels.”
“It’s made us a little bit tighter because with everything shut down for so long, people stayed up here a lot more, and they got to know each other a lot better and I think that was very beneficial for all of us.”
Socially distancing from the rest of the town has not been a problem.
“Up here at the Purple Cliffs community itself, we don’t run into a lot of people – we’re up here kind of segregated ourselves, kind of offset. We haven’t really had a lot of contact. Occasionally, we go out and shop and whatnot, but for the most part, we’re okay,” he said. While they don’t wear masks much around the camp, most of the residents put them on when they have to go into town.
Outside of the additional services and facilities at the camp, he said, “It really hasn’t changed our lives at all. I mean ... people try to avoid a homeless camp in general. If you’re carrying a backpack, pandemic or not, people are going to stay away from you.”
If anything, the programs designed to combat the effects of the epidemic have helped a little more than usual.
“For me personally. It’s been a bit of a boon,” Sargent said. “The stimulus check really helped me out, and I think that helped out quite a few other people, too.”
Moving forwardWith enough facilities set up at the Purple Cliffs to address the needs of its residents in the immediate future, NINA is now focusing its efforts on getting a permanent camp built near Greenmount Cemetery and Manna. The proposed property would provide residents with access to water, electricity, and sewer utilities, but still needs city and community approval.
“We’re going to have our plan ready here to move at a moment’s notice. We’re going to have volunteers hopefully lined up, donations, and a budget and hopefully more cash,” Micikas said. He hopes to have the project started by the early fall.
At the current site, Sargent watches numbers of cases grow in the county, state, and country as tourists arrive in Durango from coronavirus case-heavy places like Texas. His biggest concern is that a resident may become infected.
“Once one of us gets it, we’re pretty much of the agreement that we’ll all end up, or least most of us would end up, with it,” he said. He also worries that the city or the county might not act quick enough to stop its spread, especially if more people lose their housing. “I’m very concerned that we’re gonna have more people out here because of the current economic situation.”
Ultimately, Sargent hopes the epidemic opens people’s eyes to the reality of homelessness and makes them stop viewing it as a disease.
“Just treat people as people ... as individuals,” he said. “This time has exposed a lot of people for the first time with the potential of being homeless, and that’s opened them up to understanding and facing those kinds of potential conditions for themselves. ... I’ve come across a lot of great people while being unhoused. ... I would like people to know that there are a lot of good people out in the world. It’s not all doom and gloom.”