'I Feel More Protected': A Look Inside Denver's Emergency Homeless Shelters
On Monday, an emergency shelter opened at the Denver Coliseum for women and transgender individuals experiencing homelessness. This comes soon after the city opened a new facility for men at the National Western Complex on April 9. The facilities are meant to consolidate a host of services and staffing manpower under one roof, while simultaneously providing more space for social distancing among the guests who stay there.
KUNC’s Rae Solomon took a tour of both shelters. She joined Colorado Edition to report on what she observed.
Erin O’Toole: Some of our listeners are probably familiar with the Denver Coliseum and the National Western Complex, but describe what these places look like now that they’ve been turned into facilities for people experiencing homelessness.
Rae Solomon: Well, the Coliseum and the National Western Center were chosen because they’re vast spaces. The shelter providers are really taking advantage of that openness to encourage social distancing. So, one of the biggest differences is kind of how empty they are right now.
In the women’s shelter at the Coliseum, the main event floor – that’s the middle of the arena – is the sleeping area. It makes for a pretty surreal image – these rows of metal cots where people sleep, surrounded by thousands of empty stadium seats.
Meanwhile, at the National Western Center, the Bar and Grill, which is usually a sit-down restaurant, is now an auxiliary site for the Stout Street Clinic that’s run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Shelter guests can access healthcare services there.
What is the capacity of each center, and how full were they when you visited on Tuesday?
The women’s shelter at the Coliseum has room for 300 women. But the first night it was open, only about half that number of people stayed there. There were just a handful of guests hanging out in the lounge and sleeping areas.
The men’s shelter was a bit of a different story, though. Capacity there is about 760 beds. On Monday night, nearly 700 of those were filled. So, there’s a lot more activity at the men’s shelter.
What services are available at these facilities?
There’s the onsite healthcare services I mentioned before – that includes primary, mental and behavioral health. They serve three meals a day. There's laundry, hot showers. Guests get these little hygiene kits with soap and shampoo. There are armed security guards, even fenced-in area for pets.
Right now, the guests do not have wifi, but the city is working on getting that up and running.
You talked with a few people who are staying there. What did you hear?
I spoke with a woman named Jeanetta Simmons, who is staying at the Coliseum. She’s 61 years old and had been staying at the Samaritan House shelter. Despite some early concerns about the new situation, she was pretty positive about her experience there.
“You know why I feel safe? Because it’s like 300 guards! There’s a lot of people watching over us. And I feel protected, when I’m sleeping. Yeah, I do. I feel more protected than at any other facility,” she said.
And then at the men’s shelter, I spoke to a guest named Joe Baracz. He’s 55 years old and he said he usually prefers to sleep on the streets. But when the emergency shelter opened up, he decided to come inside. His take was that “it’s clean here. It’s a better atmosphere than down at the mission. I’m a pretty picky person. I stay clean.” He also said he liked having extra space to spread out and that it’s a much better situation than the normal shelters.
How is the city keeping COVID-19 from entering, and spreading, in these centers?
Everyone who enters the shelters is screened for illness at the door. They take temperatures, ask a few questions about symptoms. People who are screened out get additional healthcare and sometimes off-site isolation rooms. There are also portable hand washing stations.
While I was at the men’s shelter, I saw some of the cots being sprayed down with disinfectant by a worker in full on personal protective equipment – the jumpsuit, the face shield – the whole nine yards.
But that guy was the only person I saw who was so carefully outfitted. All of the staff wore masks, but I didn’t see any gloves, or other protections.
Most of the guests at the Coliseum, where women and transgender individuals are staying, were wearing handmade masks that people had donated.
But, again, the situation was pretty different at the men’s shelter. I talked to Joe about that.
He said, “I think with the coronavirus if you have a good immune system you’ll be fine.” He said he wasn’t concerned about himself catching the virus. He was not wearing a mask — although they are available for those who want them — and neither were the vast majority of the men’s shelter residents. "Cause we’re strong as nails,” was Joe’s explanation.
And then there’s the sleeping areas. Each bed is in its own little 6’ by 10’ box taped out on the floor. But, if you account for the width of the cots themselves, that really only leaves four feet, at the most, between each cot.
Now, to be clear, these two shelters are following CDC guidelines for homeless shelters to keep at least six feet between residents’ heads while they sleep – they do that by sleeping in a head-to-toe configuration. But there’s really only so much staff can do to guarantee appropriate social distancing.
You mentioned people are screened for symptoms when they arrive. What about testing for coronavirus? Is that being done?
Not to the extent that providers would like. They tell me that they do not have enough tests available for everyone that they think they should test. The CDC released a report just this morning documenting outbreaks of the virus at several homeless shelters around the country. Widespread testing is the best way to stop the disease from spreading in close quarters.
As of this morning, there have been 83 confirmed cases of coronavirus out of the National Western Center and the Stout Street Clinic alone, with another 15 tests still pending. That’s a significant percentage of the shelter population there.
The state’s stay-at-home order lifts on Monday. Will these centers be open past then?
Yes. There is no plan to close these emergency shelters on Monday. I asked Alton Dillard that same question – he's a spokesperson with the city. He said, “The number one priority on this is care. So we don’t see it as having a finish line. We’re just gonna see as everything starts slowly ramping down. But then also on the societal side starts ramping back up. But we cannot give a certain end date for when this may wrap up.”
What’s interesting, though, is that there also seems to be some discussion about how homeless services might look different after the coronavirus.
Patrick Firman, a senior advisor to the Mayor overseeing the emergency shelters, said the city wants to do the right thing.
“How do we get back to whatever this new normal is going to be. It’s not going to be walking in there one day and saying ‘okay, you’re out,’ or just reverse where we bus them all back to the shelters. That’s going to be a very thoughtful process,” he said.
No details yet about what’s coming out of those discussions, but more information will be available soon. So I’ll keep you posted.
This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for April 22. You can find the full episode here.