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Eighteen people at Flagstaff shelter test positive for the coronavirus
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Eighteen people at Flagstaff shelter test positive for the coronavirus


Flagstaff Shelter Services reported Wednesday that 18 people in their shelter have tested positive for the coronavirus, including two staff members.

The cases came from a batch of 62 specimens sent to TGen for testing. So far they have gotten 47 results back, with 29 negative. Some people may be presymptomatic, and their symptoms have not shown up yet, while others could be asymptomatic carriers, meaning they can spread the virus and not show symptoms.

The shelter has been serving anywhere from 40 to 65 people in their main location, about half of their normal capacity. Ross Altenbaugh, director of Flagstaff Shelter Services, said another 75 people were put up in motels using money provided to the shelter from the City of Flagstaff. Every homeless person in the motel was also tested for COVID-19, and they all tested negative.

In her mind, the sudden positive cases she saw today was not surprising, but tragic.

“I’m not going to paint something with sunshine and roses that’s not. This is what we’ve been fighting against happening here,” Altenbaugh said. “I think there’s an inevitability with what we’ve seen across the country about COVID-19 in terms of group settings and congregate living. This is one of the reasons we believe housing is healthcare.”

The shelter

Virgil Coles, a volunteer and person staying at the shelter, said he has been trying to keep himself healthy to protect everyone in the shelter. He called the people in the shelter his family.

Coles said he tested negative, but became visibly emotional when he talked about his sister who had died from COVID-19 in Arkansas, and her two children that are without a mother because of it.

“When you lose somebody to something like this, it takes your world apart,” Coles said.

As Coles sat at a table in the middle of the sleeping quarters of the shelter, many bunks had their mattresses taken off to ensure people stayed socially distant. Outside, many other people milled about in the waning spring sunlight, or sat on cots that the shelter has set up outside since the weather has become warmer.

While Altenbaugh will gladly put people in temporary COVID-19 shelters, she believes the best solution for anyone who is homeless — now and before the coronavirus — is permanent housing. She cited the shelter’s rehousing program that is cheaper on average per year than it would be to provide temporary COVID-19 shelter in motel rooms.

She said if businesses reopen, motels will likely have to charge the shelter normal rates as opposed to reduced rates while their rooms are empty. Currently a room runs about $50 per person, and she expects that rate to increase to $80 if people are allowed to travel.

At $50 per night, that would cost the shelter around $1,500 per person over the course of 30 days. She said the average cost of the shelter’s rehousing program is $2,500 per person over an entire year. She said before the coronavirus, the program housed multiple families a week and had an 86% success rate.

“How do we protect these people, these neighbors of ours, and not stigmatize them further? At the end of the day, the most important and most positive thing we could be doing is staying laser focused on housing,” Altenbaugh said. “It’s not just about hotels. It’s about permanent housing and what we’re doing to continue that conversation.”

Temporary housing

Across town, 75 coronavirus-free homeless people were waiting out the global pandemic in a motel.

People at the motel were keeping their distance, but still walking around and visiting with their friends.

Kathy Uthotgke, a woman born partially deaf, said she was worried about how the coronavirus could impact her employment. Despite her worries, she said the motel is peaceful for her, because she has a room to herself and she knows everyone is coronavirus free.

“I take my temperature three times a day to make sure I’m OK,” Uthotgke said.

Richard Tuck, who was provided a room by the shelter, said he missed the opportunity to help others by volunteering. That said, he was thankful for everything the shelter has done for him.

“To the Flagstaff Shelter Services, I want to say thank you,” Tuck said. “I probably wouldn’t have made it this far without them. And I still have a lot to do. I’m not done yet. As soon as this virus is over, I’m thinking about Hawaii. I want to see Hawaii. I want to see what it looks like.”

Flagstaff Shelter Services expects to hear back about the remaining tests on Thursday.

According to Coconino County's coronavirus website, the county has 575 positive cases and 48 deaths as of Wednesday.

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