As temperatures in Denver drop, the need for shelter for people experiencing homelessness becomes even more urgent — and the difficulty of sheltering is exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.
COVID-19 social distancing requirements have caused Denver’s shelter capacity to be cut by 56%, or about 1,200 beds, according to Britta Fisher, Denver’s chief housing officer.
A January Point-in-Time count found that at least 4,171 people in Denver are currently experiencing homelessness. Of those individuals, 996 are unsheltered.
With that many individuals unsheltered, Tuesday’s cold front put Denver’s emergency measures to the test.
“This abnormal, suddenly snowy September day gave us a chance to put our cold weather emergency shelter protocol in place very early this season,” Fisher said.
In preparation for Tuesday’s snowstorm, Denver opened a 24-hour emergency shelter at Glenarm Recreation Center for women and transgender individuals that will remain open until Thursday afternoon. One person slept at the shelter Monday night and 32 people Tuesday night.
The Denver Rescue Mission also activated its Holly Street Shelter on Tuesday for men. Fisher said 57 men slept at the shelter Tuesday night.
“We always try to meet the needs,” Fisher said. “We continue to make sure we have enough shelter to meet the demands of people seeking shelter.”
While Fisher said the city had no capacity issues during the storm, operating emergency shelters strains the staffing and resources available.
Since the pandemic began, Denver shelters have switched from overnight-only to 24-hour service. The reduced capacity of shelters also led the city to open temporary shelters at the National Western Complex and the Coliseum. For those affected by COVID-19, the city provided over 800 hotel rooms for shelter and quarantining.
The Holly Street Shelter had been closed prior to the storm so that the Denver Rescue Mission could provide enough staff at the new 24-hour temporary shelters.
And even as these accommodations make up for the number of beds lost to social distancing, shelter providers are still seeing more people on the streets as a result of economic issues and unemployment from the pandemic.
To address such issues, the Denver City Council unanimously approved a $19.8 million contract on Aug. 31 to open a new emergency homeless shelter in Northeast Park Hill. The shelter will serve up to 450 people.
"The pandemic impacted our sheltering system significantly, and it has been one of our highest priorities during our response to mitigate that impact and ensure people continued to have a safe indoor space to go to,” Mayor Michael Hancock said in a statement last Monday.
“The around-the-clock sheltering to be offered at this new location and other existing shelters provides a home base for individuals during this continuing public health emergency where they can stay healthy and safe.”
The new 24-hour emergency shelter will occupy an 82,000-square-foot warehouse at 4600 E. 48th Ave. Renovations begin in September and the city hopes to open the shelter in late December.
Until new permanent shelters open, Fisher said she is focusing on maximizing existing shelters and keeping emergency protocols in place despite the strain in resources.
“I can’t say for sure how many people will seek shelter between now and the end of December,” Fisher said, “but if more people seek shelter then we will stand up in order to meet those needs.”