Midtown Chances

Emergency shelter for homeless COVID-19 patients helps return vitality to former SFUAD campus

In the week following the first COVID-19 cases in New Mexico, as governors across the country issued stay-at-home orders, John Fairbanks headed toward Colorado to pick up a truck he’d bought. The plan was to drive it back through New Mexico and all the way to the place he’s from in Arizona before the virus took full hold of the country.

But someone stole his truck in Las Vegas, New Mexico, he says, and by the time he arrived in Santa Fe by bus, it was too late to catch a train because most routes had been limited or canceled.

He'd also started to feel sick and quickly developed a bad cough, a fever, aches in his chest and a stomach flu.

Fairbanks was one of the first people sent to the emergency shelter at Midtown Campus that the city established at the onset of the COVID-19 state of emergency in order to provide shelter to unhoused individuals who either show symptoms of or test positive for COVID-19.

The shelter has 25 residents as of Tuesday. So far none have confirmed cases of the virus.

Yet, when Fairbanks arrived at the shelter on March 28, his symptoms were so severe that he had started writing letters to friends and loved ones in case he never got to see them again.

People who are referred to the shelter by health care providers or other homeless shelters are allowed to stay after they test negative, says Nicole Pond, a Santa Fe city park ranger who is the resident coordinator for the emergency shelter, but they are not allowed to leave and must follow social distancing rules.

The shelter is staffed by city crew members and volunteers who drive sanitized buses to pick up new patients or provide health checkups. Youthworks provides hot meals.

Fairbanks is one of a handful of residents who have graduated from dorm rooms to apartments in another building on campus and who have taken on responsibilities to help clean up the grounds and the rooms for new guests. He's even started a community vegetable garden.

"Here you get the opportunity to do things that you haven't been able to do in a while…It's the perfect place for people who don't have a home to follow the order to stay home and it's just a good opportunity to better yourself and start over, as far as I see it," says Fairbanks.

Pond, the resident services coordinator, says she can relate to how some of the residents feel about the place because for her the campus has also presented a surprise opportunity for personal growth. Pond was promoted from city lifeguard to city park ranger just a week before the state announced its first positive case. Leading the team at the shelter is not exactly the turn she expected her new job to take, but she's enthusiastic about her role and excited to be helping others through the crisis, she says.

When she arrived with a city parks crew to begin the project, Pond tells SFR the buildings and campus were in various stages of neglect.

A substance-abuse treatment program, emergency services and a few other enterprises already occupied some buildings on the campus before COVID-19, but the dorms that provide space for the shelter had not been in use for at least two years. Some sat empty for far longer. Some rooms contained signs that squatters had weathered out the winter there. All required deep cleaning, re-plumbing and rewiring to get electricity and running water.

The shelter team is cleaning out 150 rooms for emergency use. So far, 60 are ready for residents in two wings of one dorm building and in adjacent campus apartments. Rooms are separated on different floors of the building by levels of urgency, with one section for people who are waiting for test results and need to completely self-isolate, one section for people who have tested negative but are remaining at the shelter, and another reserved for patients who test positive.

John Muñoz, director of the city Parks and Recreation Division, tells SFR the city hopes to find more permanent housing options for all the residents at the emergency shelter and is working with The Life Link toward a longer-term solution.

Last week, the city postponed a meeting where city councilors were expected to vote to begin negotiations with the Midtown Evaluation Committee’s recommended master developer. The city has not yet revealed the identity of its chosen developer but the meeting is now scheduled for May 4. No plans have been announced for audience interaction, but the city has been broadcasting meetings on its YouTube channel.

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