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Denver Will Open 600-Person Homeless Shelter at National Western Center

Denver will be opening up a 600-person homeless shelter, in hopes of moving people off the streets.
Denver will be opening up a 600-person homeless shelter, in hopes of moving people off the streets.
Brandon Marshall

The City of Denver will open a large homeless shelter at the National Western Complex in the coming days, Mayor Michael Hancock just announced.

The shelter will be located in the complex's Hall of Education and will have capacity for up to 600 men.

Opening the large space as a shelter will be a "great step forward for promoting physical distancing for folks experiencing homelessness," Britta Fisher, the head of the Department of Housing Stability, said during an April 7 press conference, during which she and Hancock spoke. Currently, individuals experiencing homelessness are largely unable to socially distance at existing shelters, service providers say.

Fisher noted that the Denver Rescue Mission will help staff the temporary facility, which will offer guests three meals per day, wireless Internet, showers, laundry, storage and parking access. The city is also working on placing behavioral health-care workers at the large facility.

The move to open up a shelter with a 600-person capacity is "plan B," Hancock said during the conference. Plan A was for the state to send members of the National Guard to help set up the auxiliary shelter, which service providers were hoping would have a capacity of at least 1,000. Governor Jared Polis rejected that request and is instead sending 250 National Guard members to help with existing shelters.

"The Governor 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. 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," Natriece Bryant, a staffer at the state's Department of Local Affairs, says. Bryant notes that Colorado officials want to prioritize working with service providers to increase capacity at existing shelters and create additional shelter options.

Asked if he was disappointed in the governor's decision, Hancock responded, "The governor had to make his determination based on his own statewide objectives," noting that Polis is "being pulled in a lot of different directions."

Service providers envision that the National Guard will provide supplemental services to individuals currently utilizing the city's shelter system, which is a critical need.

"We don’t have enough of either volunteers or staff to do all of the things that we need to offer to people," Tom Luehrs, executive director of the St. Francis Center day shelter, said during an April 6 press call. Luehrs expects the National Guard members to help disperse mail, and assist people with getting clothing and retrieving stored items.

Denver is also working on opening an auxiliary shelter for women, although details aren't yet available.

During the April 7 press conference, Hancock noted that he won't be suspending the urban camping ban, which prevents homeless individuals from using a tent or sleeping bag to stay outside. "Our focus is really working to shelter those who are experiencing homelessness in our city," Hancock said.

According to the most recent Point in Time survey, close to 4,000 homeless individuals live in Denver, out of around 10,000 in Colorado. With the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging certain industries, these figures could increase.

The Stout Street Health Center, which is run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, has been testing homeless individuals for COVID-19. The center has tested over 150 people so far; nine have tested positive, while 21 tests are pending.

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On April 6, homeless shelters in Denver served about 1,375 individuals. Fifteen others stayed in a supplemental shelter facility since they were experiencing "flu-like symptoms," city officials note.

In an open letter sent to hotel and motel operators on April 6, Hancock said that the city had leased 120 motel rooms for homeless individuals who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results, so that they can self-quarantine. Ninety-seven of those rooms were occupied on the night of April 6.

The city has also contracted with operators for another 151 motel rooms, and only needs Denver City Council's approval for the contracts to move forward. But Denver still needs over 3,000 more hotel or motel rooms for people to self-quarantine, Hancock added in his letter.

Colorado state employees and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are currently working on opening a 2,000-bed field hospital at the Colorado Convention Center. That facility will be ready in the next few weeks, Denver officials said during the April 7 press conference.

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