Not everyone is happy about Denver’s new plan to shelter the city’s homeless population amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Mayor Michael Hancock on Tuesday announced that the city, in partnership with shelter providers, would open on April 9 a temporary shelter at the National Western Center for up to 600 homeless men. Another interim housing facility for 300 women, most likely to be located at the Denver Coliseum according to Denver’s Emergency Operations Center, also is in the works.
“Our goal here is to relieve some of the pressure on our shelter system,” as well as provide greater social distancing among the homeless, Hancock said during the April 7 press conference.
“The temporary sheltering will provide the kind of spacing and physical distancing necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19, including at least 50 square feet of space for individual guests,” he said. “The auxiliary sites will also provide much needed relief to our existing shelters, which have been challenged with providing physical distancing for guests.”
But many among Denver’s homeless community aren’t convinced consolidating shelters is the best solution when it comes to ensuring the city’s most vulnerable safely ride out the pandemic.
Under the new plans, the National Western Center will serve individuals currently housed at the Denver Rescue Mission’s two current overnight shelters, which will begin temporarily closing on April 9. Capacity will also be absorbed from the Crossroads Shelter for men, which will remain open but with the goal of reducing capacity to 300 people.
“This is a horrible idea,” said Belinda Bowie, who was recently homeless and is currently working as a homeless outreach worker for the Reciprocity Collective, a nonprofit that aims to connect disenfranchised communities with employment opportunities.
Bowie worries that putting many people — some of whom already have weak immune systems due to diseases, such as HIV — under one roof will only spread the virus further.
“There’s a better way,” she said, advocating that vacant hotels, motels and apartments are the best options.
Metro Denver has about 54,000 total hotel rooms, with approximately 22,000 in the city and county of Denver, said Jesse Davis, a spokesperson for Visit Denver. Last week, only 11% of hotel rooms were occupied, he said, meaning more than 19,500 hotel rooms sat empty.
The city has secured roughly 150 hotel rooms, Hancock said on Tuesday, and also leased 120 motel rooms for those who may have tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results. (Nearly 110 of the motel respite-care rooms were occupied Tuesday night, according to the mayor’s office.)
Hancock also sent a letter to the city’s hotel and motel operators Monday to ask for their help securing more than 3,000 beds.
"I realize there are many hurdles — insurance, staffing, house rules, food service and more — that must be overcome," he said in the letter. "My staff has been instructed to work quickly and creatively to help overcome any and all barriers. 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."
Ana Sofia Cornelius, said she was recently terminated from the Delores Project, a shelter for women and transgender individuals, for “insubordination” after posting on Facebook and reaching out to the media about her disapproval of the city’s new shelter plans.
“My employer attempted to silence (my) right to free speech under the First Amendment,” she wrote on Facebook.
In an interview with Colorado Politics, and on social media, Cornelius argued that her health, as well as the health of her colleagues, would be jeopardized if forced to work at a large shelter.
“All of our staff has stated that they are against this,” she said.
Stephanie Miller, CEO of the Delores Project, did not confirm or deny that Cornelius had been fired due to speaking out, but instead wrote in an email, “It is our practice to maintain confidentiality regarding personnel matters. The Delores Project is committed to supporting our guests and residents throughout this public health crisis.”
Ramona Sandoval, who is currently homeless and living in a tent encampment, said her main concerns with Denver’s plans revolve around consolidating separate shelter populations.
“You get all walks of life in a shelter,” which she said can present problems when different personalities are forced to coexist in a single space.
Her worries were echoed by numerous others in Denver’s homeless community, including Nate Werner, who’s been unhoused since 1988.
Werner said most people experiencing homelessness suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness. Putting everyone together, he said, could lead to violence, which is his biggest concern.
“There’s a reason why we don’t go to the same shelters,” he said.
But Kristin Baluyot, who is the Salvation Army’s Denver metro social services director and worked with the city during the planning process, said consolidating shelters will enable police to respond, if needed, to one location as opposed to multiple locations across the city.
“We’d also be able to provide medical screening and a very swift response to anything that might come out of those medical screenings by having medically-trained staff at one site,” she said. “Right now at our shelters, we don’t have the medical staff providing those screenings, and our front-line workers are doing their best to do it, but they’re not trained professionals.”
Denver Homeless Out Loud activist Terese Howard said 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.”