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State lawmakers, Denver council members urge governor to do more to help homeless through coronavirus

Eighteen lawmakers and a handful of other elected officials on Saturday sent Gov. Jared Polis a letter to mobilize the National Guard to help and dramatically increase available motel and hotel spaces for people to self-isolate/quarantine

A man rides his bike by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver on March 12, 2020. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)
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Democratic state lawmakers, homeless advocates and a handful of Denver city council members are urging Gov. Jared Polis to do more to help people experiencing homelessness weather the new coronavirus.  

Among the actions the group is calling for is a mobilization of National Guard troops to help ease the burden of shelters that have been inundated because of the pandemic and are lacking in volunteers. They say shelters and homeless service providers are “severely under-resourced” and “in dire need of support and resources.”

“We believe the bold actions this administration has taken to contain the spread of the virus have been admirable, decisive and smart,” the group, which includes 18 state legislators, wrote in a letter sent to Polis on Saturday. “It is now time to take bold action to prioritize the immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness and those who serve them.”

MORE: Read the letter.

“Shelters are made to get in as many people as possible, but we live in a different world today,” said Brad Meuli, president and CEO at the Denver Rescue Mission. “…There is no social distancing inside our facility.”

Meuli said the lack of staff and volunteers has forced the mission to close one of its shelters to consolidate resources. 

“It is not lost on me that every day I send men and women, our staff, into the fire with no social distancing and with no PPE to try to take care of the most vulnerable population in our city,” Meuli said.

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless has confirmed at least 10 coronavirus cases among people experiencing homelessness. The organization estimates there are many more people who are infected.

Colorado officials have been saying for weeks that they are close to selecting a safe location for people who are currently packed into overflowing shelters or are sleeping outdoors during the coronavirus outbreak. But no plans have been released yet. 

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The letter asked Polis to use the National Guard to help establish an alternative shelter site, and for assistance opening up motel and hotel rooms where people who are ill can self-quarantine. The group also asked that workers who provide service to homeless people be prioritized for access to personal protective equipment, such as gloves and face masks, and they want additional testing capacity for people who are homeless.

“I think we are closer to expanded shelter options but we need the state to approve the deployment of national guard, hence the letter,” Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said in an email.

The coalition, which is based in Denver, has predicted that more than 2,500 out of the 13,000 people the organization works with will require hospitalization during the coronavirus outbreak, and that thousands more could be infected. 

Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Polis, said in an email on Monday that the governor has authorized the Colorado National Guard to help staff and assist existing homeless shelters in Denver, but added that this is a short term solution.

“The governor is very leery of one large shelter in Denver and would prefer to work with hotel operators to provide shelter with the maximum amount of social distancing in place, ” Cahill said.

State Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Commerce City Democrat, signed the letter. She said she was shocked to see photographs of how crowded the local shelters are. “I have seen some in the news, where the beds are still very close to one another, or there are mats in the congregate areas where they eat.”

EARLIER: Homeless shelters and health officials scramble for a plan as coronavirus spreads in Colorado

She said there are state-owned buildings that could be used to shelter people. “And I think we really need to do that. As politicians, we often say we’re here to represent the most vulnerable. Well, this group is one of the most vulnerable and they deserve our care and really well-thought-out policies to address their current situation.”

She said she understands the state and the governor’s office have a lot on its plate right now, “but I’m hopeful that this letter will really say, ‘this is a big problem, and we need to reprioritize it.’”

Other lawmakers who signed onto the letter include:

  • Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver
  • Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver
  • Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City
  • Sen. Robert Rodriguez, D-Denver
  • Sen. Tammy Story, D-Conifer
  • Rep. Yadira Caraveo, D- Thornton
  • Rep. James Coleman, D-Aurora
  • Sen. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, D-Denver
  • Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver
  • Rep. Dominique Jackson, D-Aurora
  • Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora
  • Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City
  • Rep. Kyle Mullica, D-Northglenn
  • Rep. Emily Sirota, D-Denver
  • Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora
  • Rep. Steven Woodrow, D-Denver
  • Rep. Susan Lontine, D-Denver

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The letter was also signed by Denver City Council members Stacie Gilmore, Robin Kniech, Debbie Ortega and Jamie Torres. RTD District C Director Angie Rivera-Malpiede also signed the letter.

This is the second time lawmakers have galvanized on behalf of homeless people in Colorado. At the end of March, Benavidez also signed a letter led by Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who asked Denver Mayor Michael Hancock to “immediately” suspend a camping ban enforcement and cleanups of homeless encampments during the coronavirus outbreak. “But he has not acted on that either,” Benavidez said.

People who are experiencing homelessness and are infected with the coronavirus are twice as likely than the general population to be hospitalized, two to four times more likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die from the illness, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, University of California Los Angeles and Boston University.

“We know that a crisis will always exacerbate inequality,” Sen. Gonzales said. “And as policymakers, we have to follow the lead of the folks doing the work on the ground and respect their knowledge and expertise, and then respond accordingly.”

“We have a choice here, we can either serve half of the people, or we can open up more space. So that is our number one request for the governor,” Gonzales said.

UPDATE: This story was updated at 4:12 p.m. to include comments from Conor Cahill, a spokesperson for Gov. Jared Polis.


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