Denver needs Polis’ help caring for homeless population during pandemic, elected officials say

Many of Denver’s elected officials are calling on Gov. Jared Polis to provide extra care for the city’s homeless population which is in dire need as the coronavirus pandemic surges throughout Colorado.

Five state senators, 13 state representatives, 12 City Council members and the director of the Regional Transportation District all signed a letter sent to Polis on Saturday.

“While the rest of the state is subject to a ‘stay-at-home’ order, people experiencing homelessness are sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder in overcrowded and understaffed shelters,” said the letter, written by Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver. “The spaces intended for refuge have now become incredibly dangerous.”

In short, the letter makes four requests of Polis:

  • Support the Denver Office of Housing Stability’s request to open an alternative shelter site with staffing support from the state’s National Guard.
  • Open hotels and motels so those with no homes have places to quarantine and isolate themselves.
  • Prioritize those who serve the homelessness community for much-needed personal protective equipment like face masks, gloves and smocks.
  • Expand testing capacity for people experiencing homelessness.

The city supports the requests, said Theresa Marchetta, a spokesperson for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

Denver provides shelter space and additional services for those experiencing homelessness throughout the metropolitan region, Councilwoman Robin Kniech said during a Monday news conference. Shelters don’t have enough room for guests to appropriately distance themselves from each other to avoid spreading the virus.

“This is a state challenge; it requires a level of resources beyond what we as a city can do alone,” Kniech said.

While Polis already authorized the National Guard to staff existing shelters, the governor sees it as a short-term bridge solution, said spokesperson Conor Cahill.

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

Brad Meuli, president and CEO of the Denver Rescue Mission, said every day he’s sending staff “into the fire” of the shelters without protective gear and without an ability to provide appropriate social distancing.

Volunteer and staffing levels have shrunk recently, and while more space is needed, it’s ineffective without staff and protective gear, Meuli and others agreed.

Portions of those requests have already been addressed by Polis since the letter was sent, said Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, but more work is needed.

People experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19, up to four times more likely to require critical care and up to three times more likely to die, Herod said.

Without these additional steps from Polis, those without housing and their service providers remain at an elevated risk, Herod said.

Both group shelter space and individual rooms are needed, Kniech said. A new, larger shelter could provide up to 70 square feet of space for each person, Kniech said. Additional hotel and motel rooms could provide isolation space for those who might be sick and those who are recovering.

To that end, Hancock wrote an open letter to Denver’s hotel and motel owners, hoping to secure an additional 3,300 rooms for the homeless.

“I implore you to consider, or reconsider, your involvement in this humanitarian mission while your properties sit under-utilized at best or entirely empty at worst,” he wrote.

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