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Oversight group releases a critical report on city’s shelter following an onsite death

Darko Stojanovic

An oversight group recently performed an investigation into the Westside Emergency Housing Center, a homeless shelter 18 miles from downtown Albuquerque. The group’s findings and recommendations give insight to the shelter, its capacities, and its limits.

Holly Mell is a staff attorney at Disability Rights New Mexico, which is an advocacy organization that is federally mandated to monitor facilities that serve people with disabilities.

She said she gets a pit in her stomach when she sees city officials encouraging more people to go to the Westside Center, which is a former jail that is not ADA-compliant.

“Their public message has really been there's no limit on the amount of people we can take at the Westside. We've got a bed for them,” she said. “I think that's really dangerous because that facility is not a healthcare facility, and we have a lot of folks that are unhoused that have disabilities.”

Mell investigated the center after she received a tip about a person with disabilities who had died there – originally, staff thought it was possible the person had fallen from a top bunk. The report says while the person did fall, there is no evidence it happened from a bed. Still, it says that the bunk beds, which are thinner than a standard twin size bed and rarely include ladders, are dangerous, especially for people with disabilities.

The shelter, which is run by the nonprofit Heading Home under a contract with the City of Albuquerque, has a goal of 2 staff per 60 people and is short that. Mell said that even if they meet that target, that is way too few staff to maintain a safe environment.

She added that when the death occurred, procedures were not in place to keep the scene clear, safe and dignified. The death occurred in a dorm that averages about 60 people, which was not cleared during the incident. Witnesses said other residents were still sleeping in nearby bunks.

Generally, medical services are also limited to outside groups that come for a few hours at a time a couple of times a week and emergency medical services. Because the shelter is remote, EMS takes much longer to get there than most of the rest of the city.

Many residents also report stolen medications and there is no laundry facility.

“The city runs a lot of public buildings. They run community centers, they run senior centers, and this level of conditions wouldn't be acceptable in any of those facilities. So why is it acceptable here?” Mell said.

Maria Wolfe with the mayor’s office said the city is working on some of these improvements. She says new procedures are in place to clear a room at the time of a death or emergency, and new, safer beds are on the way later this year.

She also said the city has fully funded the shelter for the required staff, but Heading Home has struggled to hire. In the meantime, she said it has added some temporary employees.

This coverage is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and KUNM listeners. 

Megan Myscofski is a reporter with KUNM's Poverty and Public Health Project.
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