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How El Paso’s homeless are coping with the pandemic

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Arturo Mireles lost his job at a call center when COVID-19 hit El Paso. He received an eviction notice in December and by Jan. 29, Mireles was homeless. 

“They came with the troopers, the constables, two units, they literally took me out. I have nothing, everything was left behind,” Mireles said. 

He took his dog and started to look for a place to stay. He had a difficult time finding a shelter that would take him and his dog. Finally, he came to the Hilos de Plata Senior Center, which allowed him to keep his dog while in the shelter.

Arturo Mireles lost his job and then his home during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Maria Ramos Pacheco/El Paso Matters)

Since April, the Hilos de Plata Senior Center and the Chalio Acosta Sports Center, both located on Delta Drive in South El Paso, have served as homeless shelters. 

With the outbreak of the pandemic, the homeless centers across El Paso have been rearranging their procedures to help people find a bed to sleep on and avoid contracting COVID-19. 

The Opportunity Center for the Homeless is the largest El Paso non-profit organization that provides shelter to homeless individuals. It is a non-barrier shelter, which means they accept anybody who is looking for a place to stay. The pandemic has forced them to open more shelters. 

According to Aracely Lazcano, communication director for the Opportunity Center, the center needed additional space to safely house homeless people during the pandemic.

The Hilos De Plata Senior Center is operating as the “Welcome Center” for families or people under age 65. A portable hand-washing station, temperature checks and face masks are available outside the facility. 

“As soon as a person comes in, he gets screened. They go through the intake process, and they are asked several questions. And if a person states during that interview that they were in contact with a person who had COVID, or if they say that they don’t know if they have COVID, but they feel symptoms, they automatically get into an isolation room,” Lazcano said. 

Anyone seeking a shelter bed has to be tested for COVID-19. While waiting for results, individuals are placed in hotels. If the results come back negative, they are taken to the Delta centers. If the results come back positive, they remain in the hotel rooms until they test negative.

Fernando Gutierrez, from Guatemala, arrived in El Paso in late January. After crossing the border he went Downtown seeking shelter at a church and was told about the Delta centers by a man on the street.

Fernando Gutierrez recently arrived in El Paso from Guatemala and found shelter in the Hilos de Plata Senior Center. (Maria Ramos Pacheco/El Paso Matters)

After arriving at the Welcome Center, Gutierrez was tested for COVID-19. When the test came back negative, he was given a bed in the Hilos de Plata Senior Center.

“They already checked me, they tested me for the coronavirus and it came out negative. They checked everything, I stopped by here, there and I don’t know where else” Gutierrez said in Spanish.

Since the pandemic, the Delta centers have not experienced a COVID-19 outbreak in their facilities, despite having an average of 180 people per night, according to Lazcano.

Annual homeless count 

El Paso and other cities are required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to count the homeless population each year.

But this year is different. Some cities across Texas, such as Austin and San Antonio, are canceling their annual homeless count because of the pandemic. At least 60% of cities requested exemptions or waivers from the count requirement, Reuters reported.

El Paso was given permission to count only the homeless in shelters, and not those living on the streets according to Ashley Lemell, resource facilitator with El Paso Coalition for the Homeless.

The 2019 count found 809 homeless people. that rose slightly to 843 in 2020. 

Helping the homeless community

The Alliance of Border Collaboratives is a non-profit organization that develops prevention efforts and collaborates with other organizations that deal with vulnerable populations. The alliance has been active in providing the homeless population with essentials, including food and water. 

“During the winter, we have a clothes drive,” Rebeca Ramos, the executive director of the alliance, said. “We also have the community donate blankets, supplies to keep people warm. Anyone is welcome to come bring they’d like to be able to donate.”

The alliance also is hoping to get COVID-19 vaccines to the homeless population. 

“We’re looking at a grant proposal to look at vaccination distribution among this particular population because we have noticed quite a lot of hesitancy. I don’t know if it’s hesitancy or, as I said, just not prioritizing this among the many things they have to contend with,” Ramos said about the homeless population in El Paso. 

El Pasoans who want to donate or volunteer with the El Paso Homeless Coalition can visit their website for more details and safety guidelines. 

“If anybody wants to, just volunteer to do some sort of drive, we can have a blanket drive, it can be a toiletry items drive, that I think will make the most difference,” Lemell said.

Cover photo: Many of the homeless who seek shelter bring as many blankets as possible to keep them warm, especially during the winter. (Maria Ramos Pacheco/El Paso Matters) 

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Maria Ramos Pacheco and Nicole Lopez

Maria Ramos Pacheco and Nicole Lopez are UTEP multimedia journalism students who are interns for El Paso Matters.

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