The 24/7 auxiliary homeless shelters at the National Western Complex and the Denver Coliseum — set up in April to help curb the spread of the coronavirus — will stick around through at least mid-July.
The Denver City Council on Monday evening approved two contract extensions, together worth about $4.4 million, to continue housing, feeding and providing services through July 15 for up to 765 men at the National Western Complex and 300 women at the Denver Coliseum. The contract extensions also will allow the National Western Complex to provide meals and snacks for at least 2,500 people, doubling the facility's current capacity.
At the request of Denver's housing department, the city council OK'd a contract amendment with KM Concessions LLC, to add roughly $4 million to provide meals, snacks and beverages at both shelters, bumping the contract total to $5.6 million. The Department of Housing and Stability also asked for a contract amendment with the National Western Stock Show Association that will free up $400,000 to continue housing men in the complex's Hall of Education, bringing the new contract total to $850,000.
As with other emergency response efforts related to COVID-19, the city’s finance department will seek reimbursement for eligible expenses from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“These shelters provide relief for existing shelters that were not previously able to meet CDC guidance for spacing to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19,” Laura Brudzynski, director of housing policy and programs at Denver’s Office of Economic Development and Opportunity, wrote in the resolution requests. “Guests at the shelters are provided medical services through the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless," as well as "support through partner service provider agencies such as the Denver Rescue Mission and Catholic Charities.”
“We really see this as a harm-reduction effort,” Britta Fisher, the city’s chief housing officer, said during an April 13 press conference in which the women's shelter was announced.
On Monday evening, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who represents District 9, requested that the city provide data to show what a roughly $4 million, one-month investment "is translating to, because our fear is that we won't continue this investment post-COVID, and I think that it's critical to see how these dollars have translated into change and how we can continue making space in our budget for this."
Councilwoman At Large Debbie Ortega asked Brudzynski, who was in council chambers Monday evening, to provide a transition plan, "because we've got so many people in these facilities, and we can't just put them all out on the streets."
Ortega said the city needs to be "thoughtful and clear" about its exit strategy, if it has one, and to loop in the community on any housing plans "before the administration gets so far down the road that they're going to run into similar roadblocks that have happened in the past with community opposition because there wasn't conversation early."
Ortega also said that she wants to be sure the council is included in the dialogue and "not be expected to just rubber stamp something at the 11th hour."
Many homeless advocates have staunchly opposed the consolidated shelters out of fear that putting people — some of whom already have weak immune systems due to diseases, such as HIV — under one roof will only spread the virus further.
Denver Homeless Out Loud activist Terese Howard told Colorado Politics in April that, although a larger shelter could potentially alleviate some overcrowding issues, what's needed most is providing unhoused residents access to rooms of their own, either by moving them to vacant apartments, hotels or both.
“Any shelter is not safe in this crisis,” she said. “This is not the solution.”
The city has since leased six hotels and motels, together offering 465 individual “protective action rooms” for people at high-risk for COVID-19 complications and 345 “respite rooms” for people who have been medically referred for isolation but don’t require advanced medical care.
City officials are currently working to open another shelter on 48th Avenue that will offer 200 additional respite rooms, which are scheduled to open in late June, according to the city's latest emergency situation report.
As of June 11, seven people experiencing homelessness have died from COVID-19, according to the situation report. At least 388 cases of the virus have been confirmed among the city’s unhoused population.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people living in encampments should remain where they are during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent exposure and spread of the virus. The CDC also recommends that local and state governments provide sanitation and supportive services to encampments and continue to assist people with accessing health care services, shelter, and housing if it is available.
In a June 8 testing of COVID-19 prevalence among Denver’s unsheltered community, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, in partnership with the city’s health department, voluntarily tested 50 people for COVID-19 who were living in encampments in downtown Denver. Not one tested positive.
“These testing results demonstrate that while people experiencing homelessness who are living outside may be in danger from the elements, crime being perpetrated against them, other health risks, and enforcement of laws that punish their living situation, they are not more likely to be in danger of having or contracting COVID-19 while living in encampments,” Cathy Alderman, CEO of Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said in a statement June 11. “This is likely because they are living in their own self-contained space with the opportunity to isolate themselves in their tents.”
At least 3,943 people were homeless in Denver last year, according to the most recent Point in Time survey, a census mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“There cannot be a return to ‘business as usual’ for homelessness in Denver after the COVID-19 crisis,” Alderman stated, "and the partnerships, cooperation, and knowledge that has been developed during this collaborative response should drive a collective commitment to resolve homelessness for all that are forced to endure it.”