By David C. Stout
The pandemic has forced many quick actions. In the best cases, local leaders have had at least a moment to reflect, converting reactions into deliberate responses.
One of the most pressing issues where local government has worked these past few months involves homelessness, and those efforts have been successful.
Homeless populations, especially when sheltered, hold great potential to be a flashpoint. New York City saw some alarming numbers during its peak, and some cities have struggled to contain spread among the homeless.
However, other cities, like ours, have minimized spread within emergency shelters.
In El Paso, a group involving county and city staff, as well as many agencies serving the homeless, came together to establish a better system that accommodated social distancing and linked folks in need with a place to stay.
We organized around the Opportunity Center for the Homeless, which desperately needed an overflow location and a way to handle new intakes as pre-pandemic numbers prevented social distancing within their location on Myrtle Avenue near Downtown.
We needed something under city or county control, to avoid protracted lease negotiations and to save rental payments for serving people. The City offered up the Hilos de Plata Senior Center and the Chalio Acosta Sports Center, on Delta Drive, which had successfully housed displaced people during Hurricane Rita and were already designated as emergency sites. These facilities had been vacated because of COVID-19, making them viable. Additionally, they are near the Salvation Army and Rescue Mission, allowing those organizations to provide support.
At these locations, the Delta Welcome Center and Delta Haven have popped up on a temporary basis, to centralize intakes for all shelters, isolating and referring for testing as needed, and to accommodate overflow from the Opportunity Center.
In its first four months, the Delta site had 989 unduplicated intakes, and among them, only 16 had tested positive for COVID-19. That’s a positive rate of 1.62 percent, with zero known cases that originated within the Delta site.
The Opportunity Center operates the Delta site in conjunction with Endeavors, and those numbers are a testament to their constant vigilance in screening, as they follow quarantine guidelines and develop their own best practices where none existed previously. Their success has become El Paso’s success.
Having seen this, on Aug. 17, my colleagues and I finalized an additional $1 million to keep the Delta site in operation ahead of its transition, building on the city’s initial seven-figure investment.
The city has committed $3.9 million to help stand up the Welcome Center as a going concern, enabling a transition to a new and permanent location soon and capitalizing on the unprecedented collaboration seen recently in the homelessness community.
This work is especially important as evictions have started to return. Since the Delta site started tracking evictions about three weeks ago, 11 households have sought shelter because of an eviction.
Even with deliberation, actions have consequences. The pandemic has lingered far beyond expectation, and this temporary solution has affected folks in the nearby neighborhood. My office has worked with county and city staff to help find solutions such as increasing access to healthy food for seniors in the neighborhood and increasing the frequency of trash cleanup.
Normally, senior centers offer access to air conditioning, and we’re working to find a solution for folks who lost their cooling station when Hilos de Plata closed. We continue to listen, working to normalize life for those folks as much as possible.
It has not been a perfect solution, but no one can dispute that we achieved our goal of containing COVID-19 spread among homeless people in El Paso.
David C. Stout has represented Precinct 2 on El Paso County Commissioners Court since 2015.Cover photo: Delta Haven is a site established by the city and county to house homeless people in El Paso during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ph