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Coronavirus Shutdowns Magnify Challenges For People Experiencing Homelessness

Courtesy Nate Werner
A crowd outside Denver Rescue Mission's Lawrence Street shelter on March 25.

Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order effective Thursday for Colorado to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Before that, several Colorado cities and counties — Denver and Boulder among them — had already issued their own stay-at-home orders.

But staying at home is not so simple for people who don't have a home to stay in. That's just one of the special challenges facing individuals experiencing homelessness during this pandemic.

These stay-at-home orders appear strict, but they do acknowledge that it would be nearly impossible for people experiencing homelessness to comply. The orders issued by Denver, Boulder and Larimer County all explicitly exempt individuals experiencing homelessness.

The state order doesn't have that explicit exemption, but it strongly urges people to find shelter and puts the onus on government and other entities to provide that shelter. The order also identifies shelters and other service providers for disadvantaged people as essential services that can remain open while the order is in force.

But Terese Howard, an organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud says the homeless community in Denver has other concerns. With or without a stay-at-home order, the standard recommendations from health officials do little to protect individuals experiencing homelessness.

"Folks should stay home when they're sick, should rest, should wash their hands frequently, should practice social distancing. Not a single one of those things is possible if you're homeless. So, what we are facing here is a situation where people who are without housing have no choice but to be in vulnerable situations," Howard said.

Credit Nate Werner
Beds spaced four feet apart at the Denver Rescue Mission's 48th Street Shelter.

'A risk for our guests and for our staff'

Shelters are particularly ill-suited for this type of infectious disease crisis. They often consist of crowded rooms where sometime hundreds of people sleep a few feet from one another, with shared bathrooms and cafeterias.

Shelter administrators are limited in what they can do to make their facilities less conducive to spreading contagions. The Denver Rescue Mission, for instance, now sanitizes high-contact surfaces like doorknobs, chairs and tabletops every hour. Extra hand washing and sanitizing stations have been station in the cafeteria. The mission has also taken measures to reduce contact between staff and volunteers and their clients.

But beds in their shelters are still spaced only three or four feet apart, which fall short of standard social distancing recommendations. However, the recommendations are different for institutions sheltering the homeless. The CDC prescribes a three to four-foot separation between shelter beds in guidelines they distributed for homeless shelters operating during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nicole Tschetter, a spokesperson for the Denver Rescue Mission, acknowledged that the situation is far from ideal.

"You know it is a risk our guests and for our staff too. We really do consider ourselves as emergency workers on the front lines," she said.

Some shelters have been forced to shut down for the time being. This is largely because resources there are scarce. A lot of shelters depend on elderly volunteers. But some of those higher-risk individuals are physically distancing themselves or pitching in on childcare for their families. And some service providers are even asking their older volunteers to stay at home.

The Women's Homelessness Initiative runs a shelter for women in Denver. Director Diana Flahive had to suspend shelter services last week until at least April. She said one of the reasons is that they didn't have enough cleaning supplies to disinfect as frequently as they would need to keep the space safe.

Credit Nate Werner
A sign announcing the closure of the Women's Homelessness Initiative Shelter.

Flahive also pointed out that keeping a six-foot distance just isn't feasible in the shelter environment. She considered it unethical to keep the doors open with lower safety standards for her vulnerable clientele than for the general public.

But even with diminished capacity, shelters are not overflowing. The Denver Rescue Mission reported that on a recent night, almost 300 available beds went unused.

One reason for this might be the warmer weather. But, according to Terese Howard, some people are avoiding the shelters entirely because of coronavirus fears.

Many people experiencing homelessness usually prefer to avoid the shelter environment because it's crowded and unpleasant. Benjamin Dunning, of Denver Homeless Out Loud, says concerns about contagion in the shelters is nothing new. According to him, many people opt out of the shelters because of perceived risk even during regular flu seasons.

For many, sleeping in a tent is much more attractive than a shelter. Tents are conducive to maintaining that six-foot separation that health officials recommend.

In Denver, where a camping ban has been on the books since 2012, some people are concerned about being wedged between a rock and a hard place: either break the law and risk being ticketed and having their property taken by the police, or enter a demonstrably unhealthy environment in the shelters.

The city has made concessions appropriate to the moment. Britta Fisher, Denver's director of housing, said that in practice, the city has "continued to clean encampment areas, but we are not clearing them during this public health situation." But she declined to confirm that the city was temporarily suspending enforcement of the camping ban. Denver Homeless Out Loud claims that encampment clearing has continued as recently as last week.

Credit Nate Werner
Nate Werner lost his job at a Denver pub when the city ordered all restaurants and bars close their dining rooms on March 16.

'There's no place for me'

Nate Werner is 41 years old. He hasn't had a stable home in over 20 years and has been sleeping at a shelter in Denver. He says he doesn't always have access to soap and a faucet, so he manages with a portable cleansing kit he carries on his back.

"I have hand sanitizer, handiwipes, bath wipes, and other types of wipes on me. I carry a lot more cleaning supplies on me than I used to," he said. He's found that some people passing on the street have offered him cleaning supplies instead of money.

Werner said he was working as a cleaner and bar-back at a Denver pub. But that changed on March 16, when Denver Mayor Hancock ordered all restaurants and bars to close for indoor customers. Werner said his employer broke it to him straight.

"'Well, I guess we don't need you anymore. This is our last day of being open until they tell us they can open again.' I mean, what argument do I have? What can I do? I can't get mad at them for telling me that hey, we're shutting down so we got nothing for you," he said.

Werner isn't the only one who lost an important source of income. In addition to all the restaurant support work that has disappeared in the past two weeks, a temp agency for day labor that many experiencing homelessness rely on for work has also shut down.

Without income, some people on the street have found food harder to come by. Werner said that many places where he normally seeks out food, like some churches, have stopped operating because of coronavirus concerns. With other resources unavailable, the Denver Rescue Mission reports higher demand for the meals they serve at their Lawrence Street location.

Other resources that individuals experiencing homelessness depend on, like libraries, are also closed because of the pandemic. Libraries are places where people with nowhere else to go can spend time indoors, charge their phones and use computers to stay in touch with friends and family. Werner says the closures have real consequences for him.

"Now that they've closed everything down, there's no place for me to use the restroom," he said.

Without the libraries and other day shelters that have had to close, there aren't many places left where people without a home can stay during the day. It's a difficult situation for a population that knows it is vulnerable but can't do very much about it.

The City of Denver has opened at least one supplemental shelter so far, a day shelter at the St. Charles Recreation Center. But it's not open to the public — access is by referral only. The city has also acquired respite rooms in hotels and motels where people can rest and recover if they are sick. About 75 respite rooms are available so far, and Fisher says they are committed to meeting demand as it rises. Those rooms are available by doctor's referral only. So far, only a handful are occupied.

Fisher said the city is trying to spread the word about these resources by doing outreach at shelters and at advocacy organizations like Denver Homeless Out Loud. They're also communicating through the press as well as the city's website. But many people on the street remain unaware of the city's efforts. The demographic is typically hard to reach, and without access to libraries and the computers available there, some have limited access to information.

A lot of these challenges that people experiencing homelessness are facing now are not unique to the coronavirus pandemic, but amplified by it. Dunning, one of the organizers with Denver Homeless Out Loud emphasized this point. The coronavirus might be novel, he wrote in an email, but "all the other parts have been part of the homeless community for a long time and are not new."

I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.
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