Social distancing isn't possible in homeless shelters as many fend off the cold and the coronavirus

Posted at 7:18 PM, Mar 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-19 22:37:17-04

DENVER — On the first official day of spring in Colorado, winter conditions came into the Denver metro area, causing many people experiencing homelessness looking for somewhere to go.

The spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has shut down many of the places those without anywhere to go normally turn to for warmth; libraries sat empty with signs in their windows explaining that they are closed, fast food restaurants are not allowed to allow anyone to dine-in and even recreation centers and churches are closed.

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“The main public health advice is to stay home, isolate and engage in sanitation activities, which are virtually impossible for people who are experiencing homelessness to do,” said Cathy Alderman, the vice president of communications and public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

At the Denver Rescue Mission, more than 1,000 people came searching for shelter and food Wednesday night and even more are expected Thursday.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many people at these two locations, so we’re just really inundated with a number of people that just really need to get out of the weather,” said president and CEO Brad Meuli.

Because there are so many people in need of help, recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control for people to practice social distancing aren’t practical in shelters.

“I think we all realize that it is in no way ideal and we need to come up with some better solutions, but our priority right now is to get people inside and make sure they’re safe,” Alderman said.

Many of the people inside the shelters themselves are also older or immune-compromised and therefore vulnerable to the coronavirus.

The shelter is doing the best it can to keep up with all the demand; staff is cleaning every hour and using disinfectant to keep things sanitary. The shelter has added hand washing stations both inside and outside the facility. Denver has also added hand washing stations throughout the city for people to use.

If someone comes into the shelter displaying symptoms like a fever, the staff is working to get them to a medical facility for treatment. However, even that poses its own challenges.

“We’re struggling with where to isolate people, especially if they’re awaiting test results and it’s just going to get more complicated as we see more cases,” Alderman said.

Even while the Denver Rescue Mission is trying to accommodate more people, it’s staff is feeling the strain. Volunteers have stopped coming in to help. Staff members who are older or vulnerable are also staying home.

The ones who are coming in to work are putting themselves at risk since they cannot practice social distancing.

“What we have done is we’ve taken a portion of our work and we’ve set it aside and we’re just focusing on our core ministries, which are the shelters,” Meuli said.

The mission has about 30 open positions it is trying to fill. It has already received about 200 applications as many other people in the city who are temporarily out of a job look for ways to pay their own bills.

In a press conference Thursday, the city of Denver says it has opened up a warming shelter during the daytime at La Alma Lincoln Park Rec Center for people to use from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday and 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday.

The city has also added capacity for overflow at St. Francis Center during those same hours. Denver officials say they have been able to accommodate all of the people looking for shelter so far and that they have their regular overflow and emergency preparedness plans ready to go.

Alderman says transportation is being provided to people who want access to one of these locations as well.

For now, the groups say they could use money and material donations from anyone who is looking to help. They are also looking for young, healthy volunteers to help at the shelters.