Just looking at the National Western emergency shelter puts Denver’s housing crisis into perspective

The complex will start housing as many as 600 men beginning Thursday.
4 min. read
The National Western Complex is being set up to become a shelter for unhoused men. April 8, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The National Western Complex expo floor was vacant at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning. But just five hours later, the cavernous space looked nearly ready to become a shelter for Denver's unhoused men.

On Tuesday, Mayor Hancock announced that the iconic Denver venue would turn into a makeshift homeless shelter as an effort to help stem the spread of the coronavirus among people experiencing homelessness. Men who frequent the Denver Rescue Mission recently told Denverite they were concerned about close quarters in the city's regular shelters.

On Wednesday, volunteers and employees of local service providers were busily straightening beds and setting up meal stations. Black X's marked the place where people would stand in line, waiting at a safe distance to wash their hands and pick up plates of food. A squad of Denver Public Safety trainees were building a library.

Th National Western emergency shelter is equipped to house 600 men. Each will have access to a bed with 50 square feet of space around it. Rows of cots stretch for hundreds of feet.

Britta Fisher, executive director of the Denver Department of Housing Stability, said the makeshift shelter is a reminder of the housing crisis that's long haunted the city. She knows people living in homelessness want a home, not a cot on a concrete floor.

"They want their bed, they want their bathroom," she said. "This is a call to all of us to take care of our neighbors."

Fisher was quick to point out that the last statewide Point in Time Survey found there were at least 10,000 people living without stable housing across the state.

"There are more people experiencing homelessness then are represented by the cots here. This is a small part of that," she said. "It still does look like a lot."

Britta Fisher, executive director of Denver's Department of Housing Stability, gives a tour of a men's shelter being constructed at the National Western Center. April 8, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

That number may grow as the economic impact of social distancing requirements sets in. Fisher said some people may be facing the possibility of losing housing stability for the first time.

"What we're seeing is that people really need that safety net and that ability to access affordable housing," she said.

Men who arrive at the front doors will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms, including having their temperatures checked. Those who may be sick will be transported to respite rooms elsewhere in the city.

The National Western Bar and Grill will be converted into a medical center operated by the Stout Street Clinic. The city is paying for mobile bathhouses containing 100 showers, secured from the vendors who supply events like Ride the Rockies cycling race.

Pens will hold pets (not service animals). Fisher said there will be some storage on site, but the city is encouraging people to utilize locker and bin programs not controlled by the facility.

Nick Jurkowski, a United Airlines employee, volunteers to help transform the National Western Center into a shelter for unhoused men. April 8, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Vasi Reiva, a Denver Division of Public Safety cadet, helps set up a library inside the makeshift shelter for unhoused men at the National Western Center. April 8, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The city will move men from existing shelters into the space on Thursday. Eventually, men who show up on their own will also be admitted. A few people arrived today looking for a place to sleep but were turned away.

Fisher also said the city is hoping to shelter up to 300 women at the Denver Coliseum, which is across the street, but the city is still working out the logistics.

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless has tested more than 155 people for COVID-19, some of them unhoused. Ten have tested positive. Cathy Alderman, the coalition's vice president of communications and public policy, added during a virtual town hall on Wednesday that the coalition was still awaiting results from 20 tests.

She said it was clear that COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, was spreading among people experiencing homelessness. "We must act now to contain it."

Correction: This article was updated to correct that the city is paying for the showers at the shelter.

Mobile showers, on loan from Ride The Rockies bike race, are ready to serve men living in homelessness and sheltered at the National Western Center. April 8, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Pens for pets inside the National Western Center, which will become a shelter for unhoused men. April 8, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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