Denver sets sights on hundreds of respite rooms for people experiencing homelessness who need to be isolated because of the new coronavirus

For now, it has 18.

The St. Charles Recreation Center in Cole. March 20, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The St. Charles Recreation Center in Cole. March 20, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The city of Denver has so far secured 18 rooms in hotels and is working on pinning down perhaps hundreds more for people experiencing homelessness and others who need to be isolated because of the new coronavirus.

Nancy Kuhn, a spokeswoman for the city, said that since the first such respite rooms were made available Tuesday, four people have used them while awaiting coronavirus test results — none had tested positive as of Thursday — or recovering from other ailments.

“The chief goal is to preserve our hospital space for people who need it,” Kuhn said in an email. The “respite rooms apply to people regardless of housing status. We recognize there are also people who are precariously housed – for example they may be in a home with eight other people and no room to themselves – who also need a place for respite.”

The respite rooms could be in dormitories, she said.

“All options are in discussion based on need,” she said.

“We are evaluating our need daily in coordination with public health guidance,” Kuhn said. “It is changing rapidly, so we are preparing as many rooms as possible – but keep in mind that we also need to have the capability to staff those facilities for cleaning, meals, etc. We are in conversation for hundreds of rooms and have put out a call for volunteers willing to help staff critical positions. Some of our shelters are also are seeking volunteers and some shelters have temporary employment opportunities.”

As health experts recommend social distancing, including staying at least six feet away from other people, to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the city also has temporarily turned a Cole neighborhood recreation center into a shelter. Having the extra shelter managed by the city would allow nonprofits who run other shelters to give their guests more space.

“We are in daily conversations with our providers to ensure they are supported in keeping their facilities healthy, safe, and sanitized,” Kuhn said. “We are also working to ensure we relieve some of the pressure on our larger shelters. These are congregate care type settings that are not designed for six-foot spacing ….”

Salvation Army Family Programs Director Kristen Baluyot said collaboration among staff from the city and from service organizations such as hers was “very strong right now.”

The Denver Rescue Mission had closed its Holly Center shelter and consolidated some 900 beds from its three shelters into two facilities, in part because some staff members and volunteers have been unable to work because they are considered at higher risk of falling ill if they contract the coronavirus. Thursday night, the Salvation Army and Denver Rescue Mission staff worked together to open Holly Center to shelter about 150 people during a late winter storm, Baluyot said. Holly Street was expected to be open again Friday night as a cold weather shelter, she said.

“We’re looking forward to more of that kind of cooperation,” Baluyot said.

Baluyot said the Salvation Army was providing meals for people in the respite rooms and at the St. Charles Recreation Center at 3777 Lafayette St., the facility in Cole that the city equipped with cots and portable toilets and opened as a shelter on Wednesday. The rec center shelter can accommodate 50 people.

St. Francis Executive Director Tom Luehrs, whose nonprofit’s services include housing, health care and a day shelter, also welcomed the city’s moves. Shelters, he said, “tend to be very overcrowded in a time when overcrowding is not the thing.”

“I feel like the city has really stepped up to take care of people,” Luehrs said.

Luehrs said he also was reaching out to his own contacts to see whether office buildings could be opened as temporary shelters near his day shelter at 2323 Curtis St. in Five Points. Many businesses have sent workers home because of the coronavirus, Luehrs noted.

“Our folks don’t have any place to go home to,” he said.

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