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Unlike National Western, Most Denver Shelters Lack COVID-19 Testing

The Denver Rescue Mission shelter at the National Western Center is now housing the unhoused.
The Denver Rescue Mission shelter at the National Western Center is now housing the unhoused.

After working with Denver officials and other service providers to open a large temporary shelter for men at the National Western Center, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless has been able to significantly increase the number of people that it's testing for COVID-19.

"That’s been one of the best things that has happened out at the National Western," says Brad Meuli, CEO for the Denver Rescue Mission, whose staff is now largely running operations at that auxiliary shelter.

Those entering the center undergo an initial screening. If that raises red flags, then an individual is screened further, and possibly even given a COVID-19 test if medical personnel believe he could have the illness. Anyone tested is housed in a motel or hotel room until the results are in.

But while the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless has been able to test individuals at both the National Western Center, which can house over 700 men, and the Stout Street Health Center, service providers say that they don't have the resources, or the necessary number of testing kits, to triage and test individuals at other shelters across the city.

"We’ve got two classes of people: People who are at the National Western Complex or Coliseum who have access to all of this care, and then I can’t get it at my facilities. It’s very concerning to me that that is the case," says Kristen Baluyot, the Denver metro social services director for the Salvation Army. Baluyot's organization is operating two shelters in the city that have a combined capacity for about 550 men.

City officials and service providers pushed to open a large facility for men at the National Western Center, as well as another soon-to-be-opened one for women at the Denver Coliseum, in order to offer relief to tightly packed shelters. By adding significantly more square footage at those two temporary shelters, service providers believed they'd be able to offer more effective social distancing at shelters across Denver. But the resources now available at the National Western Center are not available at other facilities.

"The shelters have kind of gone unnoticed," says Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

Service providers say they've been telling city and state officials that they need more help with staffing and testing kits, so that all of the people using shelters across Denver can be tested. "I have brought this up many times and asked for solutions, and solutions have not materialized," says Baluyot. Even so, she adds, she believes that local and state officials are doing their best with limited resources.

"Screening is something we’re working to provide at every shelter with the National Guard," explains Britta Fisher, head of Denver's Department of Housing Stability. Last week, Governor Jared Polis sent 250 members of the National Guard to help supplement staffing at Denver's existing shelters. For example, at the St. Francis Center, a day shelter, National Guard members are taking temperatures at the entrance and asking visitors whether they've experienced any symptoms of COVID-19. Those who have can be referred to the Stout Street center for testing.

"We’re doing fairly well with 700-plus people per day," says Tom Luehrs, the center's executive director.

But Alderman, whose organization oversees the Stout Street center, believes it would be efficient not just to have screening services at St. Francis, but also testing available on site. "It's better to have in-shelter settings, because referring people to other locations for testing means they have to be able to get there, and that increases the risk of exposure and the likelihood that the person might not get tested," she explains.

But adding triage and testing at all shelters will take time and resources, according to Fisher. "I don’t have a whole bunch of medical staff. We have to source that, with partners like the Stout Street Health Center, like Denver Health," she says. "Could I see that as a possibility? Yes. Do I know when and where? No, not yet."

As of early April 15, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless had tested a combined 261 individuals experiencing homelessness at the National Western Center and the Stout Street Health Center. Forty-one of those individuals have tested positive for COVID-19; 32 are still awaiting results.

The City of Denver and service providers have made hundreds of motel rooms available not only for those who have tested positive or are awaiting test results, but also particularly vulnerable individuals, such as older people and those with underlying medical issues.

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But service providers like Alderman want to ensure that families, women and LGBTQ-identifying individuals —  people who already often lack meaningful access to shelters — are prioritized for housing in motel rooms as well. "That’s an ongoing need, but it’s being exacerbated right now," Alderman says.

Service providers also want to make sure that those who choose to camp outside in Denver know how to properly social-distance.

While Denver closed Civic Center Park and surrounding areas on April 11 "to prevent large gatherings and maintain extreme physical distancing," some people are still sleeping on the streets.

"This is something that we can’t pretend isn’t happening," Alderman says. "We need to help them know how to camp safely."

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