Denver Asking Governor Polis for Support for Thousand-Person Homeless Shelter

Hundreds of homeless individuals in Denver may soon be housed in a large-scale shelter.
Hundreds of homeless individuals in Denver may soon be housed in a large-scale shelter. Evan Semón
With unhoused individuals among the most vulnerable to contracting serious cases of COVID-19, Denver is asking Governor Jared Polis to activate the Colorado National Guard to help establish and staff a large-scale homeless shelter.

"We are reaching the limit of what we as a city can do on our own," said Councilwoman Robin Kniech during a virtual press conference on April 6. She was joined by other city council members, state lawmakers and service providers in urging Polis to take action.

"Listen, we have a choice here: We can either serve half of the people or open up more space," said Julie Gonzales, a state senator who represents Denver.

The Hancock administration has already approved the plan to set up a large-scale shelter that can house at least 1,000 homeless individuals, and it recently sent a formal request for help to the governor's office. Hours after the press conference, the governor's office said it has authorized the Colorado National Guard to help staff and assist existing homeless shelters in Denver.

"The State sees it as a short-term bridge solution," Polis's office said in a release. "The Governor is leery of one large shelter in Denver and would prefer to work with hotel operators to provide shelter with the maximum amount of social distancing in place per the CDC guidelines that have been released previously.

"In addition, the State continues to prioritize working with Denver and homeless providers to increase capacity of the existing shelter system and create additional sheltering for those at risk of infection. DOLA with ESF-6 leadership, we continue to prioritize helping Denver with its homeless shelter capacity, as well as other communities." The statement was issued by Natriece Bryant, deputy executive director of the governor's office.

By establishing a large-scale shelter at either the National Western Center or the Denver Coliseum, unhoused individuals will be able to socially distance from each other, something that's impossible right now at existing shelters, according to the city. "The reason it can be safer in a larger space is because we can give people 50 to 70 square feet of space per person," explained Kniech.

In addition to prioritizing the establishment of a large-scale shelter, the coalition of Denver politicians and service providers want Polis to allocate personal protective equipment and testing to homeless service providers.

"Every day, I send men and women, our staff, into the fire of no social distancing with no [personal protective equipment] to try to take care of the most vulnerable population in our city. We see this as a very critical need now," said Brad Meuli, CEO of the Denver Rescue Mission.

And finally, they've asked Polis to help get hotel and motel rooms for individuals experiencing homelessness who need to self-isolate.

Kniech said that she'd even support authorities commandeering hotels if necessary, if operators won't strike voluntary agreements with local and state officials.

The Stout Street Health Center, which is run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, has been testing homeless individuals in Denver for COVID-19. So far, the center has logged nine positive cases; it's waiting on the results of around twenty more individuals.

Statewide to date, there have been 5,172 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 148 deaths.

This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. on April 6 to include a statement from the governor's office.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.