Denver sees spike in coronavirus cases among those experiencing homelessness

Denver’s number of positive cases of coronavirus among people experiencing homelessness more than tripled over the weekend as city officials and advocates scramble to add hotel and motel rooms and shelter space for that population.

As of Monday, 53 people experiencing homelessness have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, said city spokesperson Heather Burke — up from 16 on Friday.

Denver needs both additional group shelter space so people without symptoms can follow social-distancing recommendations and individual rooms for those who are symptomatic, awaiting test results or recovering from the virus. Securing rooms in hotels and motels has been a slow and difficult process.

The city currently has 227 individual rooms available, 142 of which are occupied, Burke said. Denver City Council approved a contract Monday night for 151 additional rooms.

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless has secured an additional 274 motel rooms for those at high risk for health complications and those referred by shelters and hospitals, spokesperson Cathy Alderman said in a release. The coalition also has an option to add an additional 138 rooms if the others are filled.

City officials are aiming to open a shelter for women at the Denver Coliseum later this week. It’s initially expected to provide 400 spots for those without housing, alleviating cramped shelters around the metropolitan area and allowing for appropriate social distancing, Chief Housing Officer Britta Fisher said in a Monday afternoon news conference.

“We really see this as a harm reduction effort, that the more we can give the spacing and the distancing that people need … the more likely they are to stay healthy and safe,” Fisher said.

As of Monday, Denver has seen a total of 1,358 positive coronavirus cases and 60 deaths, Public Health Director Bob McDonald said at the news conference.

The new women’s shelter is expected to take many of those already staying at shelters run by Catholic Charities of Denver, said Nisa LaPoint, a spokesperson for the organization. Catholic Charities will shift staff to the Coliseum, as well, LaPoint said, and the coalition’s Stout Street Health Center will screen those going into the new shelter.

The health center will also screen men moving into a new 600-bed shelter at the National Western Center’s Hall of Education, which opened last week, Alderman said.

While both auxiliary group shelters are meant to afford guests more space to limit spread of the virus, some have complained about cramped quarters. Already the National Western Center’s shelter is over capacity. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said at the conference that 700 men slept there over the weekend.

Alderman said additional space could be available in the center if Gov. Jared Polis would dispatch more National Guard troops to staff it. So far the governor has sent about 250 troops, but only to staff existing shelters. Rather than focusing on new shelters, Polis has said he’d rather work with hotels and motels for more individual rooms.

To that end, Polis published an open letter Monday calling for property managers and owners to work with cities to provide more individual rooms. Hancock released a similar letter earlier in the month.

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