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Flagstaff shelter waits for federal relief funds to house COVID-free population
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Flagstaff shelter waits for federal relief funds to house COVID-free population

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Flagstaff Shelter Services has been housing its COVID-free clients in hotel rooms for the past few weeks, but money continues to be strained in the community, making the future difficult to predict.

The shelter was expecting to see close to $600,000 set aside for homeless shelters in the Emergency Solutions Grant coming from the federal CARES Act. But the shelter had heard little about when it would receive the money as of earlier this week. FSS has been paying about $100,000 per week to provide food, staff and hotel rooms for 250 homeless people to safely shelter in place during the pandemic.

The federal government approved the state’s plan to use the money earmarked for the shelter and other homeless shelters in the state on Wednesday, Patrick Ptak, spokesman for the Governor’s Office, told the Arizona Daily Sun.

Ptak could not say exactly when agencies should expect that money would be distributed, but had good news for the shelter.

“I can confirm that funding for Flagstaff Shelter Services has been approved and will be part of the first disbursement,” Ptak said.

FSS director Ross Altenbaugh said she is excited to receive the state’s grant, and said she feels confident knowing that she’ll continue to be able to provide hotel rooms for people in need for the near future.

But even with the governor’s grant, Altenbaugh admitted she and other nonprofits have seen funds running dry as people, organizations and municipalities become more economically strained. She sees the current grant as a temporary solution to the pandemic’s economic impacts.

“All I know is that I’m running out of options,” Altenbaugh said. “I have 250 people I’ve been able to maintain as COVID-19 negative. I don’t know beyond the next week or two weeks if I’m going to be able to do that and if I’m going to have to bring them back into the congregate settings, which is a community problem.”

People in the shelter’s care who are vulnerable to the virus have described the hotel rooms and associated services as the last thing keeping them safe.

Dawn Masters, an unsheltered woman staying at the hotel, said her doctor told her that COVID-19 would be a death sentence for her in light of her pre-existing health conditions. She sat with two of her friends staying at the hotel as she explained how she volunteered at a local nonprofit before COVID-19 struck.

“Most people take it for granted that they have a home,” Masters said. “They have a place where they for the most part know that COVID isn’t there, can’t get there. We don’t have that.”

“We’re pretty much scared every day,” Diana Monahan added through her face mask.

The shelter began housing homeless people in hotels after an outbreak left 40% of the people in the main shelter positive for COVID-19 in May. The main shelter on East Huntington Drive is built to house as many people as possible, which makes obeying social distancing recommendations nearly impossible.

Since the shelter has begun housing willing participants in hotel rooms, it has had every member of its 250-person population test negative for COVID-19 for the past few weeks.

Coconino County recently reached 2,156 cases with 94 deaths as of Wednesday night. After the county spiked with a 119% increase during the week of June 20 and an 81% increase the last week of June, cases have slightly dropped. The total cases last week dropped by 18%.

Altenbaugh continues to search for new funding sources to ensure her clients are able to stay out of the Huntington shelter.

“The reality is: housing is healthcare,” Altenbaugh said. “If we can get (people) separated and into their own space, it works. But it’s expensive. And it takes a lot of people’s help.”

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