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Denver Mayor Michael Hancock provides updates on the city's response to the novel coronavirus during a press conference on April 7, 2020. 

As Denver’s homeless shelters struggle with overcrowding and staffing shortages during the coronavirus outbreak, Mayor Michael Hancock on Tuesday announced that the city will open a large shelter for men at the National Western Center.

In “the coming days,” Hancock said, the 24/7 auxiliary shelter located in the complex’s Hall of Education will open with capacity to house up to 600 men.

“Our goal here is to relieve some of the pressure on our shelter system,” he said, as well as provide greater social distancing among the homeless.

The city for weeks had been working with service providers to explore ways it could consolidate its homeless shelters to not only offer adequate space to ensure social distancing, but also access to hygiene and other crucial services, such as medical screening.

Medical screening is becoming increasingly important to prevent further community spread, as at least nine people experiencing homelessness have tested positive for the new coronavirus, according to the city's Joint Information Center.

Under the new plans, the National Western Center — which has provided temporary shelter in the past, including for the Colorado National Guard during the 2008 Democratic National Convention, as well as during World Youth Day in 1993 — 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 with the goal of reducing capacity to 300 people.

“While the whole world has been able to socially distance, we have not been able to do that in our shelters,” said Brad Meuli, CEO of the Denver Rescue Mission. “To be able to do this for the men is really incredible for us. This is a great example of a partnership between the city and the nonprofit community.”

“Now, more than ever, a community response is key to assisting persons experiencing homelessness,” said Britta Fisher, Denver’s chief housing officer. “It takes more than just the city. It requires a response that is coordinated with our shelters, our service providers, the business community and our government partners.”

Opening a 600-person shelter was "Plan B," Hancock said during the press conference. The hope was for Gov. Jared Polis to send the Colorado National Guard to help set up the new shelter, which Hancock envisioned would house at least 1,000 people. 

Polis denied the request on grounds that he would rather work with hotel and motel operators, and instead deployed 250 unarmed Colorado National Guard personnel to existing shelters and activated respite rooms at hotel and motel sites.

Now, staff from Denver Rescue Mission will assist in setting up the new shelter at the National Western Center, Hancock said, and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless will be in charge of medical care.

According to documents from Denver's Emergency Operations Center, the Denver Coliseum is also being prepped to shelter more than 300 women and transgender individuals experiencing homelessness. 

Additionally, the Rodeway Inn off Interstate 70 and Federal Boulevard is being considered as a respite room location to primarily serve community correction clients. However, according to the EOC, the city is “still overcoming staffing challenges regarding security/police presence.”

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Hancock said the city also signed a contract for 151 hotel rooms and has leased 120 motel rooms for those who may have tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results. Ninety-seven of those rooms were occupied as of April 6.

Later this month, the city expects state and federal agencies to open the Colorado Convention Center to provide 2,000 beds to relieve the medical system.

But Hancock says the city still needs more help.

The mayor sent a letter to the city's hotel and motel operators Monday asking for their help to find 3,300 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."

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