DENVER — Denver officials are discussing ways to assist the city's homeless population amid social distancing guidelines and have sought help from the state to enlist the National Guard to help expand and staff more shelters.
Denver City Councilmember Robin Kniech hosted a Zoom conference Monday to call on the state for urgent assistance. Brad Meuli, with the Denver Rescue Mission, State Sen. Julie Gonzales, and State Rep. Leslie Herod was also online during the conference.
Kniech said the city had reached its limit on what it can do to manage the homeless crisis and has formally reached out to Gov. Jared Polis to enlist the help of the National Guard to build and staff additional auxiliary shelters that promote social distancing.
In a letter to the governor, Denver City Council writes:
"We are writing to request that you take immediate action to provide support for the homelessness support system and the people experiencing homelessness in the Denver metro area and across Colorado. Severely under-resourced, our homelessness service providers are on the frontlines of the crisis response to COVID-19 and are in dire need of support and resources from this Administration."
The letter states enlisting the services of the Natioinal Guard would, "allow for de-densification in current shelters and increased access to critical health care services and virus screening for a population of people who have likely been more continuously exposed to the virus than any other groups since the Stay at Home order was in effect."
Denver's Homeless Leadership Council also submitted a formal request to the governor's office for assistance, writing, "The COVID-19 pandemic poses an emergent and severe health crisis for the homeless population in the Denver Metropolitan Area—a crisis for which our shelter and health systems are not adequately prepared."
Currently, Denver shelters are housing 100-300 people in a room, often only a foot apart, according to Kniech. She says the city has opened up recreation centers to accommodate the overflow. But the city still lacks adequate space for social distancing at its shelters without cutting their capacity.
They are looking at building or securing auxiliary accommodations that can provide the space needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the homeless population, who are twice as likely to require medical assistance for a COVID-19 infection than other communities, according to State Rep. Leslie Herod.
Denver has also secured several hotel rooms to allow those in the homeless community who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 to self-isolate and recover. Kniech said there are currently 68 individuals in hotels, but they need additional rooms, and conversations are underway in securing other hotels.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock wrote an open letter to Denver hotel owners and operators, asking for an additional 3,300 rooms to house the anticipated need from homeless individuals and local hospitals. The state is finalizing a lease agreement to convert the Colorado Convention Center into a 2,000-bed hospital as part of the COVID-19 response.
"As many of you know, I have personally appealed to a number of the city’s top hotel industry leaders. I realize there are many hurdles – insurance, staffing, house rules, food service and more –that must be overcome. My staff has been instructed to work quickly and creatively to help overcome any and all barriers," Hancock writes.
The city is waiting on a response from the governor on its formal request for assistance before they can proceed. If approved, National Guard members would be tasked with helping to build those shelters that provide 50-70 square feet of space per person. Members would also be tasked with staffing the additional shelters.