Shelter lockdown challenged sobriety journey for New Mexico men

(Illustration by Zachary Van Arsdale/News21)

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico – Photos of 69 men line the walls of the Good Shepherd Center, honoring those who have died, many of drug or alcohol overdoses.

They’re among several hundred men who have completed the Fresh Start substance abuse recovery program since it launched in 1997. It serves men 18 or older, providing addiction treatment and mental health counseling over six months.

Last year’s pandemic brought drastic change to Albuquerque’s oldest homeless shelter, which the Catholic Church opened in 1951.

When COVID-19 arrived in New Mexico in spring 2020, Good Shepherd Center closed its overnight shelter and donated-clothing room and began serving meals curbside to people living on the street.

Before the pandemic, clients who had successfully completed six weeks of counseling were allowed up to four hours of freedom each day, but now they were required to stay inside the premises of the gated shelter, which offers participants sleeping quarters, meals and a job helping to run the shelter as part of the program.

That lockdown continued for nearly a year. Some of the two-dozen or so men embraced the stricter conditions out of concern for public health, but others chafed.

“One thing about being an addict-alcoholic is, change is difficult,” said Dave Spitz, who has been through Fresh Start three times and now works for the program. “And it’s also a new realm. We got to do things new. We got to do things we don’t want to do – (taking) temperatures and washing our hands all the time and not touching each other or hugging.”

All the basics that helped people to reach sobriety, such as daily physical contact, in-person counseling and getting their questions answered, quickly were upended, said Juanita Baca, who had been Fresh Start’s clinical director and only mental health counselor for about six months before the pandemic.

Close day-to-day interactions in the cafeteria, group counseling sessions and leisure activities, such as watching television together, went away. Baca said staff strictly enforced social distancing and mask wearing, which some clients had trouble following.

“The sudden change of them not being able to go out into the community meant … there were restless men out there who would need to talk to somebody on the fly, so to speak,” she said. “As I was on my way to check my mailbox, for instance, I would get stopped.”

Typically, the men only have one individual counseling appointment per week.

Spitz, who mentors the other men, agreed that although the lockdown came with many challenges, he felt safe with the precautions staff took to protect the residents.

“I didn’t have any worries, like if I’d lost my job. We had to concentrate on our sobriety,” he said.

Some of the men complained about wearing masks, but those who refused to do so couldn’t stay in the Fresh Start program. Later, as the weeks went by, Baca said, they complained of being bored, seeing the same faces every day, and the constant routine of social distancing.

Baca and other staff routinely reminded them the strict lockdown was for their safety, especially after a COVID-19 outbreak in December infected 18 men in the dormitory. Those were the first cases reported at Good Shepherd.

Louis Packer, 52, spent the past year at Good Shepherd, maintaining his sobriety from alcohol and manning the shelter’s front desk. He had previously completed the program in 2015. Packer is at Good Shepherd indefinitely until he can figure out stable housing.

Packer is among eight to 10 men who completed Fresh Start during quarantine but still remain there to save money. He described the counseling as outstanding.

“That’s the big focus here – getting us back to being productive members of society. It’s just a real difficult time to do that with COVID,” he said.

Baca said the lockdown did have one advantage: It has helped the men stay sober. The nearest grocery store is only three blocks away, and once a client is off initial restrictions, he can go there to buy snacks. At the store, however, he may be triggered by the alcohol displays and be tempted to leave the program. Baca said she often heard that trigger complaint in group counseling sessions.

“The restriction from COVID helped them to not be in touch with so much of that, and it was good for them to not be triggered as often,” she said. “So now that the restrictions are off, I’m getting more and more of the statements from them that they have to battle their triggers much more.”

As New Mexico’s population nears 66% fully vaccinated, the Good Shepherd Center lifted most restrictions by late June and the men have their freedom again, and the number of men in Fresh Start had risen from 11 to 20 as of late June.

Packer and Spitz are looking forward to continuing online college classes and working more closely with men on their journeys to sobriety without having to stay 6 feet apart.

“When I’m doing well, I’m doing really well, and I think that it’s important to share and pass that along,” Packer said.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Walter Cronkite School-based Carnegie-Knight News21 “Unmasking America,” a national reporting project on the lingering toll of COVID-19 scheduled for publication in August. Check out the project’s blog here.