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Denver isn’t doing enough to protect homeless population from coronavirus, advocates say

City’s COVID-19 plan called for a strategy for those experiencing homelessness by March 13, but so far no document exists.

Three weeks past its own deadline, Denver still has no substantial, documented strategy in place to mitigate the spread of coronavirus among people experiencing homelessness.
Individuals are packing homeless shelters and continuing to gather in public, despite pleas from health officials for people to maintain safe distances from each other during the pandemic.
Denver has lined up about 150 individual rooms for an estimated 4,000 people without permanent housing. Next door, Aurora, which has a homeless population one-tenth the size, has secured at least 120 rooms.
Meanwhile, the number of people exhibiting symptoms and testing positive within Denver’s homeless population is rising. Six had tested positive for the virus as of Friday, according to Heather Burke, a city spokesperson — up from two last week. The numbers are likely low because of the widespread shortage of tests.
Denver’s lack of strategy puts an already vulnerable population at more risk as the pandemic worsens, experts say. Protective steps underway are either going in the wrong direction or moving far too slow, they say.
“If we act in the next few days, we might be able to protect this community, but it’s got to happen,” said Cathy Alderman, a spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
At some of the Denver Rescue Mission’s shelters, beds are approximately 4 feet apart, spokesperson Alexxa Gagner said — far short of the 6-foot minimum “social distancing” that health officials are recommending.
Of the 150 additional individual rooms — called respite rooms — secured by Denver officials for those needing isolation to quarantine while awaiting test results or to rest while exhibiting symptoms, 91 are currently occupied, Burke said.

Additional group shelter space is available for symptomatic people experiencing homelessness, and so far 15 of those 48 available beds are taken, said Derek Woodbury spokesperson for Denver’s Department of Housing Stability.
Department officials have said they’re working to find hundreds more rooms, but Chief Housing Officer Britta Fisher has estimated Denver could need thousands. The city is now preparing to open a larger temporary shelter to relieve the pressure on the system.
Housing the homeless is a challenge in the best of times, said Dr. Sandy Johnson, director of the University of Denver’s school of global health affairs.
“Now we have this crisis where we’re forgetting about the most vulnerable people in our population,” she said.
While Denver is behind the curve, so is the rest of the country, said Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
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