Gov. Jared Polis has ordered millions of Coloradans to stay at home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, but the thousands of people experiencing homelessness have few options.
State and local agencies are searching for more temporary spaces for individuals experiencing homelessness, and the Springs Rescue Mission in El Paso County is pushing ahead with an “isolation shelter” in the hopes that more state support and funding will follow.
“It feels like many in the community are looking to us for leadership,” said Travis Williams, chief development officer at the Springs Rescue Mission. “We are having to take some courageous steps of faith. And we’re praying that the funding and the resources will be on the other end to support us.”
The Springs Rescue Mission, which serves more than 600 people, includes an overnight shelter, permanent supportive housing apartments, transitional housing and a sober living facility. The organization has seen a 140% increase in people looking for day-time services due to the coronavirus outbreak. In response, it has opened up its overnight shelter for daytime use and is working with the El Paso County Public Health Department to convert an existing facility into an “isolation” shelter, which may open by early next week.
“We anticipate having 100 to 130 cots there, and then having some medical partners from Peak Vista offering the appropriate medical services,” Williams said, referring to the Peak Vista Community Health Centers located throughout Colorado Springs. He said as of now, the Springs Rescue Mission isn’t looking into any additional isolation areas.
“We want to at least get this in place,” he said. “And then as the needs continue to arise, we’ll continue to work with the appropriate partners to provide the right kind of resources.”
On Tuesday, Gov. Jared Polis announced a statewide stay-at-home order as the number of positive cases in Colorado surpassed 1,000, with 19 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. There are now 414,179 confirmed cases worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and 18,440 deaths attributed to the illness.
“Homeless individuals infected with coronavirus are twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die from the illness compared to the general population,” said Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “That’s significant. And we need to be prepared for that.”
People experiencing homelessness still need a place to go to self isolate
The Stout Street Health Center in Denver — which served 14,000 patients last year and is the state’s only health clinic specifically serving people experiencing homelessness — has been testing people for the new coronavirus since March 13.
So far, the clinic has tested 45 individuals, with no positive cases yet, though they still are waiting for more than half of the results. Once an individual receives a test, they must self-isolate while they await results. And many don’t have a place to go.
“Some people that come to see us are housed. And so they can go home and shut their door and stay inside until we get their test results,” Alderman said. “But some people we have to place in other locations.”
The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which runs the clinic, is using limited funds to help pay for motel nights for those awaiting results of COVID-19 testing. They are also providing additional supplies so that people who might have the coronavirus can remain in isolation.
“Isolation can be kind of scary for all of us, but especially for these individuals that have taken the test and are feeling uncertainty,” Alderman said. “So we’re trying our best to make sure that we’re providing mental health check-ins for those individuals that are located in sites that they’re unfamiliar with.”
Alderman estimates that Denver city health officials have secured around 60 locations or rooms for individuals experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus outbreak.
“We are in the process of securing somewhere between 100 to 200 more,” she said.
“In Denver, we need hundreds–I would say at least 800. And that number will change as the virus spreads in shelters and encampments,” Alderman said, referring to the number of rooms still needed. “Statewide, we need thousands.”
She said the state is evaluating facilities that would allow individuals experiencing homelessness to abide by social distancing guidelines, such as dormitories, schools or buildings that the state already owns.
“There are a lot of motels that are going to be sitting empty for a long period of time, and that is really an ideal resource, because people can come and go without coming in contact with others,” Alderman said.
“Frankly, I don’t know that the state has begun the process of looking at locations, or at least getting them prepared for when we have hospital overflow needs and when we have additional needs for people that don’t have homes,” she said.
Alderman said the conversations are happening, but the implementation plans have not been fleshed out.
“And that’s not to say that in other locations that this work might not be happening, like in Colorado Springs or in Fort Collins, it’s just not happening yet on a coordinated basis,” she added.
The Springs Rescue Mission doesn’t have testing capabilities, but Williams said they are working to get nursing students to conduct pre-screenings on-site. For now, when potential cases are identified, they are sent to UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central or Peak Vista Health Center in Colorado Springs.
So far, six individuals experiencing homelessness have been tested for the coronavirus and are still awaiting their results.
“Our staff had already been taking great measures to keep all of our common areas very clean — disinfecting three times a day, doing shelter resets, doing a deep-dive cleaning of mattresses and everything else, once a week. So we stepped up all of those efforts,” Williams said.
They’ve added hand-sanitizing stations and wash basins throughout the “campus” to encourage guests to keep up with their personal hygiene. They are also increasing education efforts and distributing posters throughout their facilities, highlighting the symptoms of COVID-19 and the preventative measures.
When asked if the state is doing enough to support their efforts, Williams hesitated.
“We definitely need more funding and support. Without that being clear, we’ve had to take the lead,” Williams said. “We’ve had to make hard decisions in the hopes that somehow we’ll be able to pay for it on the back end. We’re doing all we can during this crisis … we are a faith-based organization, and this is definitely a test of our faith.”
The state is working to secure more locations, help at-risk families stay in their homes
The state has convened a Homeless Task Force to discuss what the main challenges are for shelter providers across the state. Alison George, director of housing for Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs, said that in terms of finding isolation spaces, efforts are focused on keeping cold weather shelters open longer and working to expand existing shelter spaces.
The state is also working to identify a building, or a handful of smaller spaces, that could provide additional rooms for individuals experiencing homelessness if shelters are at capacity or they do not have the ability to have separate sections within their facility for individuals to seek isolation and reduce community spread.
“If there is a spread of COVID-19 within our unhoused Coloradans, yes, we are going to need additional space. And so we’re actively working with our local partners to find that space,” George said. “We’re open to whatever solution makes the most sense. And we likely do need options outside of the Denver Metro area.”
She was unable to provide specifics about when or where these additional spaces would be made available.
“The perfect location could become available tomorrow, but it also might not be available for a week or two. It’s really hard to say,” George said, adding that the state has already looked at five locations that didn’t meet their requirements.
“A property that needs to be completely rehabilitated is not a good option for an immediate response,” George said. “There are lots of different options. It’s just a matter of what could stand up the fastest but at the same time, what is the most cost-effective.”
George choked up when asked if her department is waiting on the federal government to act and provide additional funding.
“There is no point waiting for the federal government. We want to spend the public funds in the wisest way that we can to support Coloradans,” she said. “We all want the best for the people in our state. And no one wants to wait to do the right thing.”
George said the Department of Local Affairs is providing additional funding for emergency rental and mortgage assistance to prevent eviction or foreclosure.
Alderman said during these uncertain times, it’s especially important that the state helps renters and homeowners stay in their homes.
“If people lose their homes during this crisis, we are going to have expansive issues related to homelessness that we just can’t fully understand,” Alderman said.
“If we had a more robust statewide homelessness strategy, we might not be scrambling right now,” she said. “And the optimist in me says maybe at the other end of this, we will have better systems in place to serve this population. And I hope that they will be sustainable.”
Correction: This story was updated at 12:04 p.m. to clarify that the Springs Rescue Mission has seen a 140% increase in day-time services, not overall services.