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Bosselman: Denver’s failure to protect homeless people from the new coronavirus puts everyone at risk

How do you maintain six feet of social distancing when you sleep in a room with hundreds of people bunked two to a bed, each spaced no more than three feet apart?
These are the conditions for many of Denver’s estimated 3,900 to 5,000 people experiencing homelessness in Denver. Yet a week after confirmed cases of COVID-19 first showed up among this population, the city had no specific plans to stop the virus from spreading in shelters and encampments.
Uncontrollable outbreaks ignited on luxury cruise ships where guests stayed in private rooms. Within homeless shelters and encampments, the tight group accommodations certainly pose an even greater risk of fast-moving breakouts, which could quickly extend to shelter workers, volunteers and the wider population — potentially sending hundreds or even thousands to the state’s increasingly crowded hospitals
On March 26, two people tested at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless received word that they had contracted the new coronavirus, according to Cathy Alderman, a spokesperson for the nonprofit. One had stayed in a shelter the night before. A week later, 10 more homeless people had tested positive, according to Denverite, and 74 are awaiting test results. And almost none of the people who will enter shelters tonight have been tested.
How should a city prevent the spread of COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness? San Francisco, which has an estimated homeless population of around 8,011, sets a good example.
On March 27, Mayor London Breed started moving people out of group settings and placing them in 300 hotel rooms. She then promised to find an additional 3,000 rooms within a week.
For those who remain in shelters, many are being moved out of crowded facilities to a tennis club and the city’s convention center. In these temporary accommodations, one-person beds are spaced 10 feet apart.
While San Francisco has acted aggressively to stop the spread of the new coronavirus among people experiencing homelessness, Denver, as of Thursday, had secured just 150 private rooms and reserves them only for those who have been exposed to the virus, are waiting for test results or are already unwell.
Without forceful prevention efforts, Denver’s shelters are places where silent viral grenades may have already exploded. That’s because nearly a quarter of the people infected with COVID-19 may never show symptoms. And asymptomatic people may be the disease’s most prolific “super spreaders.”
Early in China’s outbreak, people who had symptoms so mild they never bothered to see a doctor transmitted an estimated 86% of new infections, according to a study published in Science by Jeffrey Shaman, a professor at Columbia University.
Yet these well-known facts don’t seem to factor into Denver’s approach to managing the disease among people experiencing homelessness. The city’s COVID-19 Action Plan required officials to develop a homeless “strategy” by March 13. When I asked for a copy of it, Loa Esquilin Garcia, a spokesperson for Denver’s Emergency Operations Center, said there’s nothing to see.
“There is no document for this. A strategy does not mean a stand-alone plan,” she wrote in an email. “We have objectives and tasks associated with people experiencing homelessness that we are working on.”
I pressed her over the phone about the objectives and tasks she mentioned. Is Denver finding thousands of private rooms where people could stay to prevent the spread of the disease? Are large spaces being converted into shelters that would allow greater social distancing at both the new and existing shelters?
Esquilin Garcia promised that things were in the works. But she refused to specify any of the objectives or tasks she said the city had developed. She also would not disclose when these unnamed actions would happen, nor how many people they would serve.
Instead, she pointed to the Glenarm Recreation Center, which the city transformed into a shelter last week. The move added 200 new beds for women. But it follows the Denver Rescue Mission closing its 200-bed Holly Center due to a staff shortage, which forced hundreds of men into even closer quarters within the organization’s other shelters.
Shelters, which typically operate only at night, aren’t the only places where people experiencing homelessness are crammed closer together. Many are crowding into the city’s few day shelters after being locked out of now-closed libraries and cafes. And the Regional Transportation District recently enacted regulations designed to kick people out of its bus terminal and the plazas around its stations — rules heartlessly enforced by an apparently fast-growing swarm of armed rent-a-cops.
Denver is also failing to follow federal guidelines to prevent new COVID-19 infections among people living in tent encampments. The CDC suggests cities immediately stop sweeping encampments. Instead, outreach workers should urge people to space tents at least 12 feet apart. Cities should also provide portable toilets and handwashing stations nearby. But Denver doesn’t even know where its encampments are, according to Esquilin Garcia.
“There is no formal tracking of encampments across city departments,” she said.
It’s time for Mayor Michael Hancock to correct this lapse in the city’s approach to reducing the spread of this new coronavirus. “Management” of people after they are infected isn’t good enough.
Until every shelter guest can be tested, Hancock must follow San Francisco’s lead and bring the number of respite rooms immediately to 300. He should commit to finding thousands of more rooms within a week. With student housing emptied and 11,000 mostly vacant hotel rooms available in Downtown Denver, every homeless person should be given a private space.
If such rooms cannot be provided to all homeless people, temporary shelters should be opened so that people in both new and existing facilities can sleep at least 10 feet apart.
New day centers should be created, too, perhaps in libraries that have closed.
Denver’s 19-page COVID-19 Action Plan fails to address how to stop the virus from spreading among people experiencing homelessness. Public health strategies are only as strong as their weakest link. If one segment of the population has an outbreak, it will spread to others. In this state of emergency, plans can be adapted.
Considering all the sacrifices everyone in Denver is making — the lost jobs, the closed businesses and the social isolation — the city must work more quickly and aggressively to stop new infections among people experiencing homelessness.
Andy Bosselman is a freelance journalist and past editor of Streetsblog Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @andybosselman.
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