Last Friday, a group of unhoused Denver residents, at high risk of dying from COVID-19, stood outside their temporary home at a Quality Inn on Zuni Street wondering where they would live in a couple of weeks.
The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which had contracted with the City of Denver’s Department of Housing Stability, also known as HOST, had sent them a notice weeks before that they must leave their rooms by September 16.
The Quality Inn is one of several hotels and motels that have been used for individually sheltering people at high risk of dying from COVID-19. The rooms were funded with FEMA money through a contract between Denver and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which expires at the end of this year.
“Where am I going to go?” asked Andrea Valenti, who has lived at the temporary shelter for over two years and is dealing with a heart problem. “I got nobody. I got no income or nothing. I’m 62 years old, and I don’t know what I’m going to do. Where am I going to go: to a shelter again?”
He’s been trying to reach out to his case manager from the Coalition and has failed to connect with her. Many other residents told Denverite they have also been unable to connect with their case managers.
As many residents sat outside the Quality Inn in limbo, uncertain and worried, HOST and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless were meeting with advocates with the Housekeys Action Network of Denver (HAND) and other Quality Inn residents over Zoom — which is not exactly a technology unhoused people have easy access to or necessarily know how to use.
HAND, which had requested an in-person meeting, managed to pick some residents up, but others were left behind.
The Zoom meeting was a technological disaster
Early during the meeting, somebody “Zoom bombed” it, and in response, the city shut down the call to late attendees. That meant residents, who might have wanted more information and knew how to call in, were unable to access it.
HOST did not record the meeting, though advocates did.
Over Zoom, looming above a crowd of desperate residents trying to ask questions, HOST and Colorado Coalition for the Homeless repeatedly said there were not enough beds to house them, outside of homeless shelters.
The city agency and the nonprofit offered pre-arranged shelter beds at the Denver Rescue Mission and Catholic Charities, which Quality Inn residents said were not adequate and would endanger them.
Congregate shelters, like HOST is offering, have been proven to be less safe than living on the streets, when it comes to COVID-19 transmission. The residents of Quality Inn said that could be a death sentence.
The representatives of HOST and the Coalition repeatedly lamented that there wasn’t a better solution and that non-congregate housing, for these people who had been sheltered for months to years, was simply no longer an option, because federal funds were gone.
When residents loudly objected, HOST threatened to mute them — something the agency could not have done had it opted to meet in person.
At the meeting, even people who had housing vouchers for over a year said they were not able to find housing with those vouchers.
“It’s not fair,” a resident said.
HOST’s solution: Talk to case managers. Go to congregate shelter.
“Why did you not bring us more case managers?” asked resident Ana Miller.
A spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless told there wasn’t a caseworker shortage, there was a housing shortage — outside of the group shelters.
In a separate conversation, Coalition spokesperson Cathy Alderman told Denverite the Coalition is currently more than 20 caseworkers short and busy trying to hire fast enough to meet the need.
At the meeting, Therese Howard asked the City and the Coalition to collaborate with HAND on finding solutions.
Neither HOST nor the Coalition provided phone numbers for their representatives who offered to speak with Quality Inn residents one-on-one. That left residents wondering how they would get in touch.
“During the meeting we stated that the phone number of the appropriate CCH case management representative would be provided afterwards to HAND and made available at the front desk of the Quality Inn,” said HOST spokesperson Derek Woodbury in an email. “The number was provided to both HAND and the front desk following the meeting.”
When asked for a follow-up meeting, HOST punted the question.
HAND has set up a meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, September 7, at Confluence Park, to brainstorm solutions so the people at Quality Inn are transferred to appropriate housing.
HAND wrote in a statement, “This community meeting is made necessary because the City and Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) are kicking about 120 vulnerable residents out of the hotel before any housing is lined up for them and telling them to go to a shelter.”
The residents and HAND have brainstormed a number of solutions, including postponing the move-out date and finding new hotels to work with.
Wrote HAND: “We will be discussing these and other possible solutions as a community led by the needs of Quality Residents on Wednesday.”
Correction: Motel funding is currently slated to lapse at the end of this year when a contract between Denver and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless expires. This story originally stated federal funding would end in December, which would end the motel program. The status of emergency federal funding through the end of the year is dependent on an extension of a federal disaster declaration. The status is currently unknown.
The story has also been updated to reflect how HOST provided the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless staff phone numbers to residents after the meeting.