Shelter providers have asked Denver city officials to consider creating one large facility open 24 hours a day, seven days a week where people experiencing homelessness can safely wait out the new coronavirus outbreak.
Providers say the idea is still at the discussion stage, with no specifics on when a consolidated shelter might open and on whether it might be indoors, a tent encampment or something else.
Erika R. Martinez, a spokeswoman for the city, said in a statement that city officials were working with the service providers to explore “strategies that would allow for adequate physical distancing to reduce harm among people experiencing homelessness, while also allowing for the pooling of limited staff, volunteers and other resources. This would include the use of a city or partner facility large enough to serve all the people needing shelter with appropriate distancing in a shared location.”
St. Francis Center Executive Director Tom Luehrs said providers were “hoping that within the next week we would have something in place.”
More shelters with round-the-clock services were something the city began working on before the coronavirus hit as part of a broader rethinking of its network of support for people experiencing homelessness.
“We’re moving in the direction by necessity, with not much time to plan, in order to save lives and just prevent people from getting sick,” said Luehrs, whose organization provides housing, job counseling, a day shelter and other services for people experiencing homelessness.
Christina Carlson, CEO of Urban Peak, which has a long-term shelter and day shelter for young people experiencing homelessness, said a consolidated shelter would be a way to ease crowding, cope with manpower shortages by bringing staff from different organizations to one place, and improve access to medical care.
It would allow for services to be provided “in a way we just cannot do right now,” she said.
“We agree with Homeless Out Loud and other groups that shelters are overcrowded,” she said, referring to the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud.
Carlson said that long-standing problem was exacerbated by the need for social distancing. Health experts say people should keep six feet apart to try to stop the person-to-person spread of the coronavirus.
Luehrs said services that people have had to find transport to reach could be in one place at a consolidated shelter.
“Every time people have to get on a bus together, it’s another situation where people are too close,” Luehrs said.
The coronavirus outbreak has led to steep drop offs in volunteers at shelters, some of which also have asked older staff members to stay at home because older people are at high risk of suffering the worst effects of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
The Denver Rescue Mission closed its Holly Center shelter and consolidated some 900 beds from three facilities into two, 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. When Denver was hit by a snowstorm earlier this month, Holly Center was briefly reopened and run by Denver Rescue Mission and Salvation Army staff together in a mini version of the consolidated shelter that has been proposed.
Ana Cornelius, who works at one of Denver’s smaller shelters, said she was worried that a large shelter would be unhealthy and unsafe. Cornelius did not want to name her shelter, saying she was not its spokeswoman. She said her shelter has been able to observe the social distancing guidelines, and that the proposal to create a consolidated shelter was met with tears by her colleagues.
Matt Meyer, executive director of the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, said no one would be forced to go to the consolidated shelter. He said smaller shelters could continue to operate.
“I think that if an organization can keep themselves up and running and doing it in a way that is safe for staff and guests, I think they will keep going,” Meyer said.
Meyer called the consolidated shelter being proposed by some providers a “harm reduction strategy … so that they can maintain social distancing.”
Carlson, of Urban Peak, said shelter providers and city officials are working together to ensure both staff and people experiencing homelessness are safe.
Carlson noted that libraries and recreation centers, places where people experiencing homelessness had been able to rest and keep clean, have been closed as part of efforts to reduce person-to-person contact. Smaller homelessness service providers have closed amid the disruptions caused by the pandemic, she said.
Larger service providers “have to figure out a way to stay open,” she said.
St. Francis’s Luehrs said that before the coronavirus outbreak, about 800 people came daily to his day shelter at 2323 Curtis Street in Five Points. Since the outbreak, the number have grown to 1,000, in part because people have fewer options. Last week a nearby business, Asterisk Denver, began allowing St. Francis to use its event center, easing the crowing in the day shelter.
People experiencing homelessness “are going to places that they trust and people that they trust and saying, ‘What do we do?” Luehrs said.
“People are trusting us with their lives,” he said. “And we’re trying to respond as best we can.”
Luehrs said conversations about consolidating shelters began even before Mayor Michael Hancock’s March 23 order that Denverites stay home as much as possible until at least April 10 in an attempt to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The mayor’s order exempted people experiencing homelessness, but urged them to obtain shelter. Later statewide stay-at-home orders urged people experiencing homelessness to seek shelter and government and other officials “to make shelter available as soon as possible and to the maximum extent possible.”
In Denver, city officials have worked with service providers to increase facilities for people experiencing homelessness who have COVID-19 symptoms or have tested positive for the coronavirus. Nonprofits have worked with the city to get people awaiting coronavirus tests into hotel rooms, which city officials call respite rooms, where they can also stay while recovering. A city spokesman said over the weekend that the city had a total of 119 respite rooms in several hotels for people experiencing homelessness affected by the coronavirus, and another 20 rooms that had been secured but not yet staffed.
St. Charles Recreation Center at 3777 Lafayette St. in Cole has been equipped with cots and portable toilets and opened on March 20 as an additional shelter that can accommodate 50 people. An emergency day shelter was to be opened Tuesday for women at the Glenarm Recreation Center at 2800 Glenarm Place. The shelter, with a capacity of up to 200 people, will serve two meals and be open from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
According to the latest point in time survey, nearly 4,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Denver on any given night. The same survey found about 4,000 beds available.
People experiencing homelessness are not more likely than others to contract COVID-19, but underlying health conditions and the stress of being unhoused means many could be especially hard hit if they fall ill.
In a statement Monday, the state health department said that because coronavirus tests were in short supply, it was prioritizing them for health care workers with symptoms and patients in hospitals. People in homeless shelters are also a priority for tests, but not as high a priority as health care workers.