Arizona’s Largest Homeless Shelter Confirms First COVID-19 Case

The entrance to the Central Arizona Shelter Service in September 2019.
The entrance to the Central Arizona Shelter Service in September 2019. Elizabeth Whitman
A man staying at Arizona’s largest homeless shelter has tested positive for COVID-19, marking the first known case of the virus at the downtown Phoenix facility, Central Arizona Shelter Services confirmed on Friday, May 9.

The shelter learned of the positive test result on Thursday, May 8, according to Dayna Gabler, chief development officer at CASS. The individual is being treated at a medical clinic run by the nearby nonprofit health provider Circle the City.

Clients and staff who may have had contact with the individual are being swabbed and tested for the coronavirus, with results expected within the next 48 hours, Gabler said. “Any clients who test positive will immediately receive medical care through Circle the City and be isolated in their care."

The man who tested positive had been staying in Level 1, a men’s dorm-style room at the shelter. CASS typically houses 470 clients but has reduced its capacity to 370 amid the coronavirus pandemic, along with other precautions, such as social distancing, passing out masks, and avoiding congregate meals.

According to Gabler, the 50 to 60 guests who had been staying in Level 1 are still staying there, “quarantined with plenty of social distancing,” after the room received a deep-clean “by both our facilities staff and professional cleaning service.”

But those guests left the shelter during the day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on May 8, and it’s unclear who they may have interacted with during that time.

Meanwhile, security team members who had been staffing the floor on Level 1 are not subject to any quarantine-level restrictions — and appear to still be working as usual.

“Like our staff, they have been required to wear masks and maintain social distancing,” Gabler said. “Based on the protocols we have had in place since March, staff and security were deemed by our partners to be at a low risk of exposure.”

That scares some people experiencing homelessness who are staying on the 13-acre Human Services Campus where CASS is located.

Elishyah McKinley, 61, who is staying on a county-provided emergency lot near CASS that has been set up for the COVID-19 pandemic, says she’s seen CASS security team members who normally staff the shelter working on her lot in the last few days.

“I’m just a nervous wreck,” she said. “I have a mask on, but I don’t know who people are. Maybe the guards have it. I don’t know. And they still haven’t said anything. No officer has said anything.”

McKinley said she learned about the positive test result from a man who had been staying on Level 1 but came  onto the lot where she is staying. Shelter authorities haven’t made any announcements about the positive case to her or others staying in the area, she said.

“They should have told us that this virus was out here,” she said.

The emergency lots, set up by the county with federal funding, are meant to encourage social distancing for people who otherwise occupy sprawling encampments on downtown sidewalks. The lots provide bathrooms, lighting, handwashing stations, and lines drawn on the ground to keep people apart.

But McKinley, who says she’s received threats that she will be cited if she camps on the sidewalk outside of the asphalt lot, said the sanctuaries that the county has set up feel more like jails.

“They have rocks in it and it’s hot as hell, and it’s really sad,” she said. McKinley also said she was told the lots would be reserved for 55-and-older homeless residents, and that the tents would be distanced from each other — but that isn’t happening. Instead, young people have been mixed in, and tents that were previously one space apart are now right next to each other.

McKinley and local homeless advocate Elizabeth Venable emailed a letter to Mayor Kate Gallego on May 9, explaining the situation and asking for help.

“We are very worried people will die because you are forcing them into these lots,” she said. “Your officers say if we are going to stay outside we are going to get tickets. Why do we have to stay in the Coronavirus concentration camp?”

The positive case at CASS comes two days after news broke that the coronavirus had swept across a Flagstaff homeless shelter, infecting nearly a third of its residents.

Homeless shelters and other congregate-living situations are of particular national concern amid the spread of the virus, since the disease spreads through droplets that people sneeze or cough out. People in close quarters could be at higher risk of spreading the disease.

Meanwhile, across Arizona, over 10,500 people have tested positive for the coronavirus and deaths have eclipsed 500, according to the state health department.

Though a statewide stay-at-home order doesn’t officially expire until Friday, May 15, Governor Doug Ducey has begun to guide the state toward a gradual reopening, with restaurants, retail stores, salons, barbershops open in limited fashion.
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Ali Swenson was an editorial fellow for Phoenix New Times starting in 2019.