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Mayor Hancock Announces Plans for the Homeless Population Amidst COVID-19

The city is partnering with hotels and the National Western Complex to relieve homeless shelters and create more space for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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While Gov. Jared Polis ordered Coloradans to stay at home for three more weeks and Denverites have been urged to do so until April 30—one question has loomed: What about the people who don’t have a home?

Mayor Michael Hancock announced at a press conference on Tuesday morning that in an effort to protect Denver’s homeless population during the coronavirus pandemic, the city has secured 270 hotel and motel rooms for those experiencing homelessness who are medically required to isolate, and has partnered with the National Western Complex to open an auxiliary shelter to create more space for proper social distancing. The makeshift shelter at the National Western Complex Hall of Education is set to open on Thursday with a capacity for about 600 men and individuals identifying as men.

“While the rest of the world has been social distancing, we really have not been able to do that,” said Brad Meuli, president and CEO of the Denver Rescue Mission, voicing some of the stress that the city’s current shelter system is already under. Hancock echoed similar concerns.

“We cannot expect that we can be successful in [flattening the curve] if we are not properly serving, sheltering, and providing proper distancing with our residents who are homeless,” he said. “They are as much a part of who we are as a city, and a need to make sure that they are protected and healthy and safe is equally as important as it is for the rest of us.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis approved the mayor’s request to deploy 250 members of the National Guard as personnel relief to the city’s existing homeless shelters, but denied Hancock’s request yesterday for even more personnel. “The governor had to make his determination based on statewide objectives,” Hancock said. “They’re going to be pulled in a lot of different directions, and we recognize that.”

The announcement also came just one day after plans were revealed for the Colorado Convention Center to be turned into an alternate care site to relieve pressure on local hospitals, and after Hancock penned a letter to hospitality industry leaders calling for more hotel and motel rooms to be made available for health care workers who need to isolate and people experiencing homelessness. Of the 120 motel rooms made available before today, 97 were already occupied by last night, and Hancock wrote in the letter that the city will need at least 3,300 additional rooms to meet the expected need. At the press conference today, he cited red tape surrounding legality, liability, and insurance as early hurdles to making this happen sooner.

For the time being, the new shelter at the National Western Complex—staffed by Denver Rescue Mission workers—will feature 24/7 services including three meals a day, snacks, housekeeping, restrooms, portable showers, wifi, laundry, storage, security, parking, and access to public transportation. Staff from the Stout Street Health Center (the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless’ health program), will also be on site to provide testing for COVID-19 and any additional primary or behavioral health care needed, while also continuing to monitor people in provided “respite rooms” who are recovering from the novel coronavirus and or have displayed symptoms. 

Hancock alluded to current plans in the works to open an auxiliary shelter similar to the National Western Complex for women experiencing homeless, possibly at the Denver Coliseum, and said he is hoping to have details for that finalized soon. So far, the city has opened a rec center as a day shelter for up to 200 women, as well as a 48-bed facility for people who are symptomatic, though the mayor did not specify at the conference where those were located.

And despite its contentious history even before the pandemic, Hancock made it clear he would not be suspending the city’s current urban camping ban during this time. “Our focus is really working to shelter those who are experiencing homelessness in our city safely, and in decent facilities that are well staffed and connect with resources and services,” he said.

(More: Read all of 5280′s COVID-19 coverage)

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