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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

Front Range Cities Varied In Response To Needs Of Homeless Communities During Pandemic

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Nate Werner
Crowds at Denver Rescue Mission on the evening of April 2.

This report was part of Colorado Edition's episode on April 9, 2020. Listen to the full episode here.

Advocates for those experiencing homelessness, as well as people within the homeless community, say not enough is being done to protect this vulnerable population during the coronavirus pandemic. Colorado cities have been trying to rally services for their homeless populations, but in some ways Colorado's capital is behind other Front Range cities in their response.

Denver's auxiliary shelter

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced this week that the city is opening an auxiliary shelter for people experiencing homelessness at the National Western Complex. The Denver Rescue Mission will temporarily close its two remaining shelters, sending their guests to the new auxiliary shelter, which will receive staffing help from the Colorado National Guard.

Consolidating their staff in one place, and getting help from the National Guard, relieves pressure on the stressed infrastructure in Denver. Existing service providers there asked the city for help with staffing, according to a press release issued by the mayor's office. Several shelters, including the Denver Rescue Mission have reported staff shortages since the onset of the pandemic.

The mayor's office also says it will ensure that a minimum of 50 square feet are provided per person at the 100,000 square foot auxiliary shelter. This would make social distancing far more practicable than at existing shelters, where providers say beds are spaced only three to four feet apart.

The city will provide shelter guests with food, laundry, showers, Wifi, storage, medical care and a few other services.

Denver considered consolidating shelters early last week, which alarmed some in the homeless community.

Alex is a 34-year-old man who declined to give his last name because he feared retribution from shelter administrators. He hasn't had a stable home in about two years and usually stays at the Denver Rescue Mission's downtown shelter. He was concerned by the city's plan to consolidate the shelter population.

"I'm just, I'm scared," he said last week, before details of the consolidated shelter were publicly revealed. "I don't want to be here for this. I don't want to be stuck with people that might endanger me. And I definitely don't want to be isolated with people that can possibly give me the coronavirus."

Homeless advocates, like Terese Howard with Denver Homeless Out Loud, are skeptical that a consolidated shelter would significantly improve the situation.

"Moving around the chairs on the Titanic does not change the reality that the Titanic is still headed towards the iceberg," she said. "And if we don't redirect this entire shelter approach toward one that gets folks in individualized housing options, we're still on the Titanic."

On a typical night, the Denver Rescue Mission has almost 1,000 beds available across their various shelters. The city says that the auxiliary shelter — which will have only 600 beds — will absorb the capacity from the Denver Rescue Mission, as well as overflow capacity from another area shelter.

Both the city and the Denver Rescue Mission brushed off concerns about reduced capacity.

"We have worked closely with providers," a city spokesperson wrote in an email, "to plan for adequate sheltering based on typical usage during this time of year."

The Denver Rescue Mission says that in recent weeks, they have averaged about 540 shelter guests each night. Despite recent shelter suspensions, the city reports a total of about 1,700 shelter beds are still available in Denver each night. They say capacity at the auxiliary shelter can be expanded, if necessary.

Cities on the Front Range respond

Every city has responded independently to the coronavirus crisis in homeless communities. But in general, some of Northern Colorado cities like Boulder and Fort Collins acted to get ahead of the problem before Denver.

Fort Collins set up an emergency 24-hour shelter, where guests have the space to practice social distancing; beds are at least six feet apart there. That opened on March 19, a full three weeks before Denver's move.

Shelters in Boulder also emphasize social distancing. At one of the city's main shelters, capacity was reduced from 122 beds to just 72 to space those beds out more.

Until the mayor's announcement this week, Denver shelters by and large made the choice to maximize capacity, even to the detriment of social distancing.

Quarantine without a home

When people get sick, it isn't possible to quarantine or isolate themselves effectively in shelters. Different cities have addressed this in their own ways.

In Denver, the city has been contracting "respite rooms" — hotel rooms that give sick people a place to stay while they recover. As of Tuesday, 97 of those rooms were in use.

Boulder and Longmont have joined forces to set up a 47-bed COVID Recovery Center. People are screened for COVID-19 at shelters. Those with symptoms are bused to the Recovery Center, which provides a comfortable environment for healing in an old recreation center.

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Credit Gregg McMurtry
Gregg McMurtry.

39-year-old Gregg McMurtry has been in and out of homelessness since he was 13. A few weeks ago, he started feeling sick and ended up at Boulder's COVID Recovery Center. He says the center was keeping people 10 feet apart. He described it as a positive, restful environment.

"We have plenty of sanitizer. We can shower once a day," he said. "They wash our clothes. We see three square meals a day. They have a patio out back where we can go smoke on either move around a little bit."

McMurtry started feeling better last week. After he was discharged from the recovery center, he returned to the North Boulder Shelter, where he normally stays. He said he was not worried about getting sick again there.

"I'm not trying to brag about it but I have been around the United States off and on to different sheltering systems," said McMurtry. "And that shelter, in my opinion, is one of the best — one of the cleanest far as I've ever been."

Tracking coronavirus in Colorado's homeless communities

McMurtry doesn't think he had COVID-19. He wasn't tested for the virus at any point, so he doesn't know definitively, which is a common story. Testing for coronavirus across the state remains very limited.

There is no entity keeping track of how — and if — coronavirus is spreading within homeless communities in Colorado in any coordinated way. Information is disorganized.

Denver is now reporting 13 individuals experiencing homelessness there have tested positive for COVID-19.

In Fort Collins, at least five people have symptoms and are currently in isolation at the emergency shelter there.

In Boulder, 16 people are currently staying at the COVID Recovery Center. Eight of those have been tested, with results still pending.

Among the people experiencing homelessness on the Front Range who have had symptoms and were tested, the majority ultimately did not have COVID-19. The issue is complicated because of other diseases spreading in shelters, such as an outbreak of norovirus at the Fort Collins shelter.

Homeless advocates demand relief

There is no definitive evidence of a major COVID-19 outbreak within homeless communities in Colorado, but there is general acknowledgment that the population is very vulnerable right now and completely unequipped to take the most basic measures to protect themselves from the disease or follow stay at home orders.

A group of homeless rights advocates filed a complaint against the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment last week. Groups from Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and Grand Junction signed on to the complaint and are represented by attorney Jason Flores-Williams. He wants to force the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to fulfil its obligation to protect the health and safety of all Coloradans. He called the situation a crisis.

"It's happening on the streets right now and what needs to be done is that agencies follow their mandates and intercede and create and execute policies that will mitigate the situation," said Flores-Williams.

The group represented by Flores-Williams says there is enough space in hotel rooms and empty buildings for all Coloradans who need housing. They argue that providing housing is necessary for general public health during the pandemic.

The complaint was filed last week. The state has yet to respond.

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