As of Monday night, almost all of the clients at Flagstaff Shelter Services are now being sheltered at one of three motels in an effort to promote social distancing among Flagstaff’s homeless population.
Over the weekend, FSS director Ross Altenbaugh secured a third motel willing to loan space to the shelter for its clients. Together, the three sites now provide about 175 rooms.
The decision to expand to serve the shelter’s entire homeless population was made Thursday by the shelter’s board of directors, following results from testing last week that showed 30% of clients and staff were positive for COVID-19. As the results have continued to trickle in since last week, Altenbaugh said the count is now at 21 clients and five staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Altenbaugh said the shelter continues to see 60 to 70 people every night, after moving 75 of the most vulnerable to hotels about five weeks ago. Because all but one COVID-19 tests of those staying at the motels have been negative, Altenbaugh said the team now knows the model works.
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Despite ongoing funding concerns, Altenbaugh said the need to expand the program became clear after the testing results from last week.
“The right thing to do is to get people out of a congregate setting. It’s not just right for the people themselves, it’s right for our community in general. … I don’t know how we’re going to pay for it. I don’t know how we’re going to sustain it in a way that’s meaningful to flattening the curve or doing what we need to do, but it’s what has to happen,” Altenbaugh said.
FSS is currently working with the Arizona Departments of Housing and Economic Security to see if there is additional funding to help with this initiative. The two motels alone cost the organization from $15,000 to $30,000 weekly.
In this new sheltering format, clients sign in at FSS’ Huntington Drive facility as normal and are transported to one of the three motels, which FSS is referring to by numbers to prevent walk-ups. Though the motels are considered quarantine sites and do not allow visitors during these hours, Altenbaugh said the shelter continues to serve individuals regardless of characteristics including faith and sobriety as well as COVID-19 infection.
Homeless individuals with minor symptoms of COVID-19 are sent to Hotel Aspen, operated by Coconino County, for shelter. This weekend, the County also opened up the hotel to additional homeless individuals from FSS as well as those from Sunshine Rescue Mission and Catholic Charities.
A very limited group of people, on a case-by-case basis, will remain at the FSS facility. Altenbaugh said the shelter will not turn anyone away, but the motel rooms are meant for people from Coconino County. She is encouraging those who are able to stay elsewhere to do so, as long as it is safe, to leave the rooms open for people who have absolutely nowhere else to go.
Anne Newland, president of the FSS board of directors, said the group is partnering with Flagstaff Medical Center to borrow the equipment needed to decontaminate the shelter, one floor at a time, while clients are sheltered offsite.
“[Using motels] is valuable to us because it gives us an opportunity to do a deep cleaning of the shelter and to institute a screening protocol that we can sustain going forward just to reduce the risk of transmission amongst a very challenging population,” said Newland, who is also the CEO for North Country HealthCare.
She added that the team is considering more frequent testing, possibly using anterior nasal swabs, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states are less invasive than the standard nasopharyngeal swabs, are less likely to spread the virus to healthcare workers and use less personal protective equipment.
“The results are less sensitive,” Newland said of these swabs, which do not reach as deep into the nose. “That is, you’re going to miss some people who have the virus, but our thought is maybe we can make up for that by testing more frequently.”
Though the Coconino County Board of Supervisors last Tuesday chose to submit its 30-day notice to end its Hotel Aspen operations, which have cost the County $630,000, after the promise of reimbursement from the state, the board later decided in a special session Friday to sustain the hotel operations.
In a meeting with Major General Michael McGuire, director of the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, County representatives were told the state will be able to immediately reimburse 75% of the costs of operating Hotel Aspen.
Liz Archuleta, chair of the County Board of Supervisors, said the need for this space for unsheltered individuals was never in question, but the board was concerned about the size and cost of the hotel until the state offered support.
“With the information that the state will reimburse us at 75% and can do that immediately and the information of the surge of COVID-positive amongst our unsheltered community, it is good for us to be able to have the large property,” Archuleta told the Arizona Daily Sun.
As of Monday, Archuleta said the hotel was housing 62 individuals, plus 27 rooms available for FSS clients Monday evening. The remaining rooms are unavailable now for biohazard cleaning, as required after a COVID-19-positive individual leaves a room.
The County has submitted its reimbursement application to the state and is awaiting a confirmation. Archuleta said once this is confirmed, the County hopes to work with the state department to see if local shelters’ expenses for hotel rooms to stop the spread of COVID-19 can be folded into the County’s expenses for reimbursement.
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (928) 556-2253.