Denver needs rooms — perhaps thousands — to shelter people experiencing homelessness and others who don’t have a place to go as they await test results or show symptoms of the novel coronavirus sweeping the country.
Local property owners and managers hold the keys, said Britta Fisher, Denver’s chief housing officer.
The city has properties that can house groups but not individuals under quarantine or isolation orders, Fisher said. Last week, only eight individual rooms were available to the city, two of which were occupied. They’re needed to relieve hospitals, which already face a shortage of beds, and to prevent community spread of the virus in homeless shelters and public spaces.
Denver could need as many as 3,900 individual rooms, Fisher said. That’s an extreme figure and the top estimate of how many people are experiencing homelessness on a given night in Denver. Just how quickly the need will arise remains unclear because the situation is unfolding rapidly, she said.
“Most people can go home from the hospital and recover, but some folks don’t have a housing option and some folks are very precariously housed,” Fisher said.
Among the latter group is Brooke Garner, who said her friend, fearing the coronavirus, kicked Garner out of her home after Garner’s 5-year-old son fell ill.
“She had taken it upon herself to pack all of my belongings and throw them outside,” Garner said. “I tried to go to the police for a civil assist, to file a civil complaint, but they told me that they’re no longer taking civil matters at this point.”
Garner said her son — who had the flu — and 8-year-old daughter went to live with their father, while she landed at a friend’s home, where she sleeps on a mattress in the garage alongside another person and a rabbit cage. The place is full with eight people in a two-bedroom duplex, she said.
Even in the best of times, Garner said, she has trouble finding reliable housing. She splits her time as a massage therapist, which currently brings no income because of the virus, and working at a dispensary.
“I’ve just been kind of doing room rentals with friends and people I meet who have a room to rent for $400 to $600,” Garner said. “It’s always tricky. It’s hard to find the right people, the right housing situations.”
If she falls ill, Garner said, she has no place to quarantine or isolate herself. Homeless shelters are an option but the group setting makes her nervous with such a communicable virus spreading, she said.
Denver’s shelters aren’t well positioned for social distancing measures, agreed Denver Rescue Mission spokesperson Alexxa Gagner.
Those experiencing homelessness are more likely to suffer from underlying health issues worsening their condition if they contract the virus, Fisher said. In addition, they could spread it more widely.
Denver owns or operates large facilities like recreation centers that could be used for group care settings, but private rooms are needed for those who aren’t so sick that they require hospitalization.
“We don’t want them to linger in the hospital unless they need to be there,” Fisher said.
Specifically the city needs vacant hotel, motel and dormitory rooms, Fisher said. Donations would be accepted, but the city can pay for some of the services. That would help public health and keep at least some cash flowing for businesses currently without customers.
The city and area homeless shelters are also seeking volunteers who don’t fall in high-risk groups for becoming seriously ill if they contract COVID-19.
Anyone who might have a usable space is asked to email firstname.lastname@example.org, and volunteers are asked to reach out to the Mile High United Way or the Denver Rescue Mission at unitedwaydenver.org/volunteer or DenverRescueMission.org/volunteer, respectively.