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Coconino County's homeless populations at risk for coronavirus spread
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Coconino County's homeless populations at risk for coronavirus spread

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As people turn to shelter and isolation in their homes to wait out the spread of the coronavirus, many homeless people are unable to find isolation and shelter.

Coconino County’s rental, utility and emergency assistance programs for people in need have seen 1,476 applications filed since March, up from the normal 50 per month.

The spike in applications reflects what many are feeling amid increased cases of unemployment around the state as people stress over each dollar and look for food and shelter. The City of Flagstaff was able to reallocate nearly $60,000 to help Flagstaff Shelter Services manage their daily influx of over 177 clients. However, the county is trying to look for other avenues as it is unable to provide direct funding to homeless shelters around the county.

Ross Altenbaugh, director of Flagstaff Shelter Services, said they have instituted social distancing parameters at the shelter, but with the amount of people now staying for their newly implemented day and regular night services it’s not possible to follow CDC guidelines at this time. The City of Flagstaff’s money helped to provide 50 people without a home in a local hotel for one month, while Coconino County officials said they were unable to provide direct assistance.

Altenbaugh said more is needed to reach her goal of getting 100 people out of the shelter into a hotel for the duration of social distancing orders. Reaching that goal would allow the shelter to better utilize the space they have to achieve the CDC's social distancing recommendations.

Altenbaugh feared what might happen if they are unable to provide space for the homeless to isolate during this crisis.

“The reality is that these people are our neighbors. These are people [the coronavirus] will devastate. It will devastate this population if this seeps through,” Altenbaugh said. “Many people can’t survive this because of cancer, diabetes and heart disease -- all the things that are hard to survive if you have a roof over your head. We need to do something.”

Shelter conditions

The warehouse-style shelter requires many people to sleep on bunks close to others. In these communities, many rely on friends in their daily interactions for support, which during the COVID-19 pandemic can be dangerous.

Altenbaugh added that in any crisis, people who are impacted the most by homelessness are the first to feel its impacts.

At the shelter, over 40% to 50% of the people who enter their doors are Native American, and many have pre-existing health conditions that can include mental illness, Altenbaugh said. She added that some of the people within these categories are still employed and stocking shelves, making to-go orders, and providing essential services to the city and county.

“It’s so plain. There's a disproportionate number of people who are affected that are people of color, that are already on the margins of our communities. It’s where less resources are put,” Altenbaugh said. “It’s very clear that our staff is not considered first responders. We’re having difficulty getting appropriate PPE [personal protective equipment] into our facilities.”

Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans said the disproportionate impact on minority communities and people with pre-existing health conditions contributed to the city’s decision to reallocate the nearly $60,000 — originally designated for vocational training through the shelter — to the shelter’s coronavirus relief. This money was provided after the shelter said it received $10,000 from the city in March.

“Once this is all over with, our country, our state, and us as a city need to have a concentrated conversation about poverty, mental illness and how we address these issues,” Evans said.

Evans called on empty motels and hotels to support the community by offering their rooms at an affordable rate for shelters and their homeless populations.

Hotel Aspen

Liz Archuleta, chair of the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, said the county’s resources were strained and they could not direct money to funding solutions for the homeless at this time. Archuleta estimated the county was currently spending around $700,000 a month on coronavirus response efforts.

“We are going to need to depend on community partners, nonprofits and other government entities to address the needs of our homeless community,” Archuleta said. “We can’t do it all. We’d like to; we can’t.”

Their monthly expenditures include the $190,000 it is spending on its contract with the Hotel Aspen property to provide shelter for low-risk coronavirus patients. That money does not include the operational costs of security and cleaning, Deputy County Manager Marie Peoples said.

Hotel Aspen is being used by people with confirmed cases of the coronavirus from Flagstaff Medical Center and Page Banner Health. The hotel has 123 available rooms, and has had 42 clients since it opened on the day the county got its first confirmed case in March. Peoples defended what she said could be seen as low use by saying the costs were investments into the community’s health.

However, the hotel is only being used for people with minor symptoms who can manage their own care, Peoples said. Anyone with severe symptoms is being taken care of by properly trained medical professionals.

Archuleta said the county was partnering with local nonprofits like United Way and the Flagstaff Family Food Center to help find better ways to apply for grant funding to help nonprofits that manage food, housing and economic assistance that should be active in the near future.

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