Many of Albuquerque’s older adults experiencing homelessness live in a shelter that can’t meet their needs
Homelessness in older adults is increasing at a fast clip across the country.
In Albuquerque, much of that population is in one place: the city’s main shelter on the Westside. That facility, however, is not set up to care for older folks or people with disabilities.
The Westside Emergency Housing Shelter, or WEHC, sits about 30 minutes away from Downtown Albuquerque.
“It used to be a jail, and so it's out in the middle of nowhere,” said Dr. Lee Affholter, a dentist with local nonprofit Health Care for the Homeless.
“The barbed wire’s still up. Everything’s about the same. You just don’t have the same security at the door that you used to.”
Her team comes every Thursday for three hours. Another group does the same earlier in the week. Otherwise, there are only emergency medical technicians here.
Affholter’s colleague, Registered Nurse Oakley Blasdel, said they barely scratch the surface of the medical needs here.
“Honestly, if they had a provider in the clinic here every day, they would be busy,” she said.
Blasdel said the majority of the people the team sees are older adults – people over 55. That is partially because older adults are more likely to stick around the shelter than younger people. But about 150 of the 450-700 people the shelter houses on any given night are older adults, and they tend to have more health needs.
Homelessness in older adults is on the rise across the country, partly due to housing costs. Then, the pandemic made things even worse. The average age of a person experiencing homelessness has risen to 50.
Many cities are struggling to keep up with the growing population of unhoused older adults. That will likely continue without big changes – their numbers are expected to triple in the next decade.
“WEHC has become a de facto nursing home,” Laura Rifka Stern, the medical director at the Westside Center, said. “And many of the elderly people really should not be here. They should be in a medically safer environment.”
The center does not meet standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The bunks, which are holdovers from the facility’s time as a jail, are small, unsafe and often missing ladders. Wheelchairs cannot easily access the shower area, which includes push buttons that are too high for people in wheelchairs or with limited upper mobility. It also lacks enough shower chairs and secure storage for medication.
Medical professionals say they see the same diseases circulating when they visit, and residents say there are so few showers and sinks that they can’t use them as often as they need to. There is also no laundry facility on the premises.
“This is not the place to be elderly or older and ill,” Rifka Stern said.
Yet many here are, sometimes even for years on end.
The center functioned for a long time as a nighttime emergency shelter from October to March, with limited food and other services. That changed in 2019. Then during the COVID-19 pandemic, people had the option to stay there and not venture back into the city.
That actually did limit the spread of COVID-19 in the shelter. But it meant more people were using the facility as a long-term living space.
Tammy Lee Rosencrantce is in her early 60s and has lived here for over three years.
“I’m known to have PTSD, anxiety. I have real bad arthritis in my legs, and when it gets cold, it just about cripples me,” she said.
She regularly stops in when Health Care for the Homeless is in, and on this visit, was prescribed medication. However, there’s no pharmacy here, so she’ll have to take a shuttle to pick it up.
Rosencrantce has been unhoused for most of her life, and she said that even though the shelter isn’t homey – it still looks like an old jail inside and out – it feels safe to her, and she has a community of women in her dorm who look out for her.
She said she talks to a case worker who is trying to get her into an assisted living facility. She has Medicaid. Still, she’s not getting the full health care she needs.
Maria Wolfe works in the Department of Health, Housing and Homelessness as the Homeless Innovations Officer. She said this shouldn’t be the case.
“It is not built with seniors or people with disabilities in mind,” Wolfe said. “It's up to us to get that improvement made.”
She said the city is trying to do that. It ordered new beds that will come by the end of this year. It also hooked the building up to a sewer line, which she said will make it possible to add laundry facilities.
The city also recently added another shelter, the Gateway Center, which has more services, including an upcoming medical respite center.
But that one is consistently full with a waitlist, and Wolfe says there aren’t plans to build another shelter – in part because when the city tries, neighbors often shut the effort down.
“People just literally don’t want a shelter in their area,” she said.
Among the examples that Wolfe pointed to was the city’s recent efforts to create Safe Outdoor Spaces, or designated areas where people can camp. Few organizations that have applied to create them on their land have succeeded, often because neighbors file appeals that a nonprofit, for example, cannot afford to fight. Albuquerque’s city council rejected a move to limit the appeals process in order to move more applications along.
Wolfe also said the city and Heading Home, the organization that contracts with the city to run the shelter, are also working on staffing issues – the Albuquerque Journal reported recently that the shelter is short 17 people. Wolfe said for now, they’re adding temporary staff to help.
Holly Mell with Disability Rights New Mexico recently wrote a report on the shelter prompted by the death of a person with disabilities. She said the city’s goals still fall short of what’s needed.
“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,” she said. “So why is it acceptable here?”
Mell said the shelter is absolutely not equipped to house the large numbers of people it does each night.
“I’m not too worried about unhoused people not knowing the risks because they know what the conditions at the Westside are like,” she said.
She worries more that the population at large doesn’t.
This coverage is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and KUNM listeners.
This story has been updated to reflect new information from the City of Albuquerque that the Westside Emergency Housing Center became a 24/7 shelter in 2019.