Petition Asks Court to Make Colorado Protect Homeless During Pandemic

The petition argues that state health officials must protect homeless individuals from COVID-19 infection.
The petition argues that state health officials must protect homeless individuals from COVID-19 infection. Evan Semón
Homeless advocacy organizations from across the state have asked a judge to order Colorado public-health officials to protect unhoused individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Homelessness is a type of living hell in normal times," says Jason Flores-Williams, the lawyer representing the various organizations and homeless individuals who filed the petition in Denver County Court on April 1. "In times like these, it’s on the lowest rung of Dante’s hell as far as the suffering that people we’re representing are having to go through right now."

The plaintiffs for the petition include advocacy organizations that represent homeless individuals in Denver, Boulder, Grand Junction and Fort Collins, in addition to two Denver residents experiencing homelessness. Together with Flores-Williams, they're asking the court to direct the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment "to take steps, based on its expertise, to prevent and mitigate contraction and transmission of COVID-19 amongst the homeless community."

The petition also wants the court to order CDPHE to "work with proper state and city authorities to provide housing for Plaintiffs and similarly-situated homeless persons during this crisis." Specifically, "housing that is safe, sanitary and that enables Plaintiffs to protect themselves from the epidemic while engaged in the course of their lives, work, and mission."

There are approximately 10,000 homeless individuals throughout the state, according to the petition. Currently, it says, homeless individuals throughout Colorado are faced with a choice between entering crowded shelters — thus ignoring social-distancing guidelines and potentially exposing themselves to COVID-19 infection — or living on the streets, which can be dangerous, too.

"Under the current circumstances, existing shelters cannot be expected to keep our homeless residents safe, nor to protect shelter staff or the larger community. The only way to protect the homeless and the community at large is by providing homeless residents with housing that will allow them to shelter in place and maintain the hygiene necessary to 'flatten the curve,'" Stephen Koester, a medical anthropologist with the University of Colorado Denver, writes in an expert opinion that accompanies the petition.

And it's up to state health officials to ensure that homeless individuals are connected with this housing, Flores-Williams says. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment declined to comment on the filing.

So far, seven individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Stout Street Health Center, which is run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and has dedicated testing for homeless individuals. The coalition has been facilitating temporary housing for these individuals and others awaiting test results so that they can self-quarantine.

Denver officials say that they're working to get as many homeless individuals as possible off the streets and into shelters. The city still has a camping ban on the books, which prevents homeless individuals from sheltering with tents or sleeping bags on public property. In a recent 9News interview, Mayor Michael Hancock said that the city is considering opening a large homeless shelter at a place like the Colorado Convention Center or the National Western Center.

Flores-Williams hopes to have a hearing before a judge regarding the petition in the coming weeks. He's already filed a similar petition concerning jail and prison inmates throughout Colorado.

Here's the petition filed April 1:
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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.