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600 beds will open at Denver’s National Western complex to give homeless men safer space during coronavirus outbreak

The shelter will provide safe shelter for 600 men who were bunking at Denver Rescue Mission shelters that will temporarily close on Thursday. A similar space for women is being developed.

People clean up their encampments along Lincoln Park, which is being closed on Wednesday, Jan 15, 2020, because of public health concerns. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Denver will open 600 beds at the National Western complex to give men who are homeless a place to shelter safely during the outbreak of the new coronavirus, Mayor Michael Hancock said Tuesday. A similar shelter for women is in the works.

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The beds at the National Western complex are set to open in the next few days and will primarily serve people who had been staying at the Denver Rescue Mission’s two overnight shelters, which will temporarily close on Thursday. Some will come from the Crossroads Shelter for men in Denver’s River North neighborhood, where managers are trying to lower the number of clients to 300 bunking at a safe distance from one another.

“Our goal here is to begin to relieve some of the pressure on our existing shelter system, allowing them to provide greater physical distancing between guests,” Hancock said.

The mayor also said 250 unarmed members of the Colorado National Guard will be deployed to assist shelter providers.

“These efforts represent an unprecedented amount of cooperation between providers and the city,” Hancock said during a news conference on Tuesday. “It will also allow us to provide a safer and healthier level of care, and pool limited staff, volunteers and resources.”

The city also has leased an 150 additional hotel rooms to shelter people who have symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and need to self-isolate during their recovery. The contract still must be approved by the city council, Hancock said. The additional rooms brings the total available to 270, but as of Monday night, 97 rooms were already occupied, the mayor said.

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

As of Monday, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Colorado was more than 5,100 with at least 150 deaths. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless reported 10 coronavirus cases as of Friday among people who are unhoused.

City and state officials have been working for weeks to secure more rooms or spaces for people who might otherwise be bunking in overcrowded shelters or sleeping outdoors. But advocates and homeless shelter providers say a coordinated plan has not developed quickly enough.

In recent days that criticism has grown, including from Democratic state lawmakers who called for more to be done.

The mayor said that he will not suspend the city’s controversial camping ban.

Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said since shelters have become more crowded during this time, more individuals have chosen to stay outdoors to avoid coming in contact with the coronavirus. She said she hopes the additional space encourages more people to seek shelter.

“I think the fact that we’ll be able to provide meals and storage facilities, and health care on site, it might give people another reason to come,” Alderman said, “even if they choose not to stay there overnight.”

The mayor’s announcement comes a day after Gov. Jared Polis said he would authorize the Colorado National Guard to help staff and assist existing homeless shelters in Denver. But a spokesman on Monday said the governor was “leery of one large shelter.” 

On Monday, the mayor sent a letter to dozens of hotel and motel owners and operators, urging them to help house people during the coronavirus outbreak. In the letter, he said that the city had already leased 120 motel rooms for people who have tested positive, but he said an additional 3,300 rooms are needed. 

The National Western Stock Show complex in Denver will shelter about 600 homeless men during the coronavirus outbreak. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I know there are many hurdles — insurance, staffing, house rules, food service and more — that must be overcome,” Hancock said in the letter, adding that his staff is working “quickly and creatively to help overcome any and all barriers.”

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

In January 2019, Colorado had an estimated 9,619 people experiencing homelessness on any given day, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. During the 2017-18 academic year, there were more than 20,000 public students who were homeless at some point during the school year, according to data reported to the U.S. Department of Education.

Other cities around Colorado have been working to increase space available for people experiencing homelessness so that they can abide by social distancing measures and practice self-quarantine. Last week, there were reports the city of Aurora was working to rent a hotel for the city’s unhoused people during the coronavirus outbreak. 

On Monday, Colorado Springs opened a 70-bed “isolation shelter” for people displaying coronavirus symptoms or who are recovering and have been released from the hospital. The new shelter had been delayed twice due to insurance issues.

Alderman said the opening of the National Western shelter is a good step toward offering safe shelter to unhoused people in the city during the coronavirus outbreak, but there are areas outside the metro area that still need assistance.

MORE: Colorado is still figuring out how to protect the homeless as Denver shelter reports two coronavirus cases

“In any area of the state where there are congregate shelters, we need to make similar moves to dedensify quickly,” Alderman said.. “Other areas along the Front Range, Alamosa, Durango, those places all have a shelter system that is probably experiencing very similar pressures that we’re experiencing in Denver.” 

Alderman said the state is encouraging homeless shelters to contract for additional hotel and motel rooms during the coronavirus outbreak, but said providers in less populated areas might lack the financial resources.

“The state’s going to have to step in and help,” she said, adding that the state’s involvement could give motel and hotel operators some “comfort” knowing that the state might stand in as an insurer. 

“I think we’re just really going to need the state to kind of help move that strategy along, especially in places that don’t have organizations like Colorado Coalition for the Homeless that are engaged in these kinds of contracting opportunities all the time,” Alderman said.

She said she hopes there will be more conversations with the governor’s office about the need for more staffing support from the Colorado National Guard.

“Because the last thing we want to do is open up the space to provide social distancing, then maybe not get all the motel and hotel resources we need online, and then not have the support for these folks a week from now or two weeks from now.”

Rising Sun