While Denver (and the entire state of Colorado) is staying home to combat the spread of COVID-19, there’s one question that has yet to be effectively answered: How will the city protect our homeless community from the virus?

Conditions in Denver’s homeless shelters could lead to a fast-moving outbreak of the new coronavirus, one that could easily spread to shelter staff, outreach workers, and the general population—a potential outcome that would weaken everyone’s efforts to stop the disease.

Among people experiencing homelessness in Denver, 53 have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Monday, April 13. But with a lack of adequate testing, the actual number of infections is likely much higher. In Denver’s homeless shelters, guests find it impossible to stay six feet apart from one another—the distance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention to keep the virus from spreading.

To address this issue, on April 9, Denver started bussing homeless men out of cramped shelters to a temporary facility at the National Western Complex, where up to 600 individuals will sleep on cots spaced at least six-feet by 10-feet apart. Existing shelters will remain open, but fewer guests will stay in each, allowing people to spread further apart. On Monday, April 13, the mayor announced that a similar shelter for women will be opened at the Denver Coliseum, with a goal of serving 400 individuals.

The move follows an opinion piece I wrote for Sunday’s Denver Post. It revealed the city had failed to meet a March 13 deadline to create a plan to manage the virus among the 3,943 to 5,000 people estimated to be experiencing homelessness in Denver. Within these numbers, 1,235 live in transitional housing, according to Dillard, which leaves 2,708 individuals in shelters, safe havens, or sleeping outside.

Considering how fast the virus has spread on cruise ships, where people had private rooms, any group living facilities may be problematic. In San Francisco, temporary shelters now provide a minimum of 10 feet of physical distancing. But homeless advocates there denounced the shelters as inadequate to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The newspaper Street Sheet, produced by the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, called the temporary shelters “mass indoor camps,” with hundreds of people “all breathing each other’s coughs.”

In fact, San Francisco Mayor London Breed just announced a major outbreak at one of its largest shelters, the St. Vincent De Paul MCS. According to a tweet from San Francisco Chronicle reporter Trisha Thadani, 68 residents and two staff  members have tested positive.

Additionally, both the state of Colorado and the city of Denver have been trying to find up to 3,900 motel and hotel rooms to house the homeless during the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a Tuesday announcement from Mayor Michael Hancock. However, they have been met with resistance from hotel businesses and so far have not been able to get anywhere near that number.

Currently, Denver has 227 rooms that are earmarked for those who are already sick, are awaiting test results, or are high-risk; 142 of those rooms are already in use. The city has finalized a contract for 151 additional rooms, but has not committed to finding additional rooms by a fixed date. “This is very much a collective effort, with the city working together with provider partners and the state to bring rooms online as soon as possible,” said Dillard.

On Sunday, April 5, before the city announced its plans to open a temporary shelter at National Western, I spent time at three facilities run by the Denver Rescue Mission to witness firsthand the places where people experiencing homelessness are spending their days and nights. Below are photos of my tour.

Editor’s note, 4/14/20: This article has been updated with new information. 

Sid Hudson at the Denver Rescue Mission Larimer Street Community Center on April 5, 2020. Photo by Andy Bosselman

Sid Hudson, 65, pictured at the Denver Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street Community Center, a day shelter, has been experiencing homelessness for four years. He fears catching the new coronavirus in a shelter, in part because of his health conditions. “It’s very scary,” he says. “They say I’m at higher risk. I have COPD. Asthma. All of the above.”

The virus is creating a tense atmosphere in shelters, he says. “There’s been a lot of people on edge.”

Hudson typically spent his days at a senior center until it closed to allow physical distancing, along with cafes, and libraries and some other communal spaces. Many people experiencing homelessness now find themselves increasingly crammed into the city’s few day shelters, where social distancing remains difficult.

Hudson planned to spend Sunday night at the Denver Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street Shelter, pictured below.

David Atkins, who works at Denver Rescue Mission Lawrence Street Shelter, stands amid 200 bunk beds packed into a room on April 5, 2020. Photo by Andy Bosselman

At the Lawrence Street Shelter, 200 bunk beds are separated with about three feet between rows. The head and foot of each bed are pushed next to each other with no space between.

David Atkins, who works at the shelter, did not expect the shelter to be full on Sunday night, due to good weather and recently received social service checks that allow people to stay in motels. But when the shelter is full, guests do not have an option to stay distanced from others. The organization operates several facilities for the homeless, and none were created with pandemics in mind, he says.

“Our shelters aren’t designed for that,” he says. “It’s hard. If we had a bigger facility or someplace else to put people, it would be a lot better. It’s just not realistic at this point.”

Ross Osborne at the Larimer Street Community Center on April 5, 2020. Photo by Andy Bosselman

Ross Osborne has stayed in several shelters since he became homeless on March 24. He described a facility with little separation between beds. Holding his hands about two feet apart, he says, “They’re that close together. People are coughing in their sleep.”

He adds that many people experiencing homelessness have resorted to staying in tent encampments, which are not allowed under the city’s controversial urban camping ban. “There’s tent cities everywhere because they don’t want to get coronavirus. They’d rather deal with the cold than deal with the chance of getting coronavirus.”

Phil Wright at the Larimer Street Community Center on April 5, 2020. Photo by Andy Bosselman

Phil Wright, a volunteer and guest at the Lawrence Street Community Center, says that he had a dust mask and gloves. But as the outlook for COVID-19 has grown bleaker, he stopped wearing them.

“I’ve given up a little,” he says. “A pastor mentioned to me there’s no stopping it at this point. It causes me to look deeper to my relationship with God. To see what I need to do to get closer to Him.”

A line for sheets and towels at the 48th Avenue shelter. Photo by Andy Bosselman

When people stay in shelters, beds are not the only place where guests struggle to maintain six feet of physical distancing. People also pack into the buses that bring them from day centers to night shelters. Guests must form lines to get sheets and towels (as pictured above). Cafeterias are often crowded.

So while efforts are underway to provide more space to those experiencing homelessness, the virus’ effect on the community ultimately depends on the actions of city officials—and only time will tell if those actions are sufficient.