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A morning at Albuquerque’s largest homeless shelter

Oakley Blasdel and Matt Frahm from Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless go to the Westside Emergency Housing Center weekly with a team to see patients.
Megan Myscofski
Oakley Blasdel and Matt Frahm from Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless go to the Westside Emergency Housing Center weekly with a team to see patients.

Homelessness in older adults is increasing rapidly nationally and here in New Mexico. KUNM Reporter Megan Myscofski shadowed a street medicine team from local nonprofit Health Care for the Homeless on its weekly visit to Albuquerque’s Westside Emergency Housing Center.

The shelter houses up to 700 people every night, and a quarter of them are older adults.

In this piece, we hear from two members of the team, Dr. Lee Affholter and Matt Frahm. We also hear from resident Tammy Lee Rosencrantce and the shelter’s medical director, Dr. Laura Rifka Stern.


DR. LEE AFFHOLTER: It used to be a jail, and so it's out in the middle of nowhere. There's a compost plant nearby. Other than that, there's not much. And so when you arrive, the fences are still in place. The barbed wire is still up. Everything's about the same. You just don't have the same security at the door that she used to.

MATT FRAHM: Being out here 24/7, there is limited staff capacity out here to really provide the wraparound services that folks can get in town, if they're more mobile, able to come to centers like ours, meal sites, housing appointments.

So for instance, if someone out here does come up on a housing list, some of the steps to that, like with a Section 8 voucher, they have to come to an orientation, they have to sign the paperwork, they have to go find a unit to live in, sign the lease and everything.

All of that requires a lot of transportation back and forth, which becomes really difficult to someone's all the way out here.

AFFHOLTER: As a provider in town, when I know that I've got a patient who stays out here, I have to be cognizant of – are they going to miss the bus? Am I keeping you too long? Because we've had patients who get stuck there in town. And if they missed the bus, now they’re sleeping on the streets.

FRAHM: Folks, come out here and stay out here and don't leave, which is really scary to think of our older neighbors just staying out here not really having an interruption.

I think one of the most jarring things here is those doors, you'll hear them slamming.


FRAHM: Like that. So, just imagine that happening while someone's trying to sleep or rest. Or, we have behavioral health groups out here for folks, and we send extra people besides a therapist for a couple of reasons, just to help organize it and recruit folks, help answer questions.

But honestly, a big part of their job while they're out here is just to hold the door and keep it from slamming when people walk in and out, so that it doesn't disrupt the group.

TAMMY LEE ROSENCRANTCE: My name is Tammy Lee Rosencrantce. Oh, I guess I've been here about three or four years.

Back in my day, they didn't have computers. I don't know nothing about computers. I've been on my own since 15. And I've been on the streets since I was 15. So, I feel this place is a safe haven for me.

I'll tell you what I would like to change in the Westside Shelter: better showers, a lot more bathrooms because there's a lot of people here and making this place look really nice.

DR. LAURA RIFKA STERN: I'm Dr. Laura Rifka Stern. I’m a family doctor in town.

A lot of people here are very ill, both medically and emotionally, with complex problems. We don't have enough nursing home spaces, or housing where people could be more stabilized and have easier access to health care.

We have a lot of people here with walkers and wheelchairs, and amputees and blind people. And it's awful. It's really awful, and they shouldn't be here, but they won't or don't fit in other places.

Luckily, some people form small groups and actually take care of each other, which is very cool. But this is not the place to be elderly or older and ill.

ROSENCRANTCE: It's rough out there. It's really rough out there, and I pray every day for those ones that are out there camping out and everything because everybody deserves a chance.

I'm a very understanding person in all this, but there's some people that would give out clothes, some people who would just drive by looking at us like we’re nobody. Invisible. It's not supposed to be like that because we're human too.

This story is part of a three-part series on homelessness and older adults. 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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