Coronavirus hits Denver’s homeless population as 2 test positive

At least two people experiencing homelessness in Denver have tested positive for the new coronavirus, advocates say, marking a new and particularly trying chapter in the city’s efforts to quell community spread.

The two positive results came from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless’ Stout Street Health Center, said Cathy Alderman, a coalition spokesperson. About 50 people have been tested so far and about 20 of those results are still pending.

It’s unclear how many other tests Denver Health and other organizations have conducted for those experiencing homelessness. Representatives from Denver Health did not return messages Friday seeking comment.

Early last week a quarter of the city’s available individual rooms were occupied with those who might have caught the virus. The number of available rooms has multiplied since, but so has the need. Now half of Denver’s available rooms are occupied.

The city also has opened a supplemental shelter more conducive to social distancing for those who show possible symptoms of coronavirus.

“We have worked with the patients to get them into safe locations to isolate and recover,” Alderman said.

One person who tested positive for the coronavirus has stayed at the Denver Rescue Mission, according to spokesperson Alexxa Gagner, but it’s not clear whether that person was one of the two positive cases tested at the Stout Street center.

A mother and child staying at a Catholic Charities of Denver shelter exhibited symptoms and were separated from the group setting and quarantined, said spokesperson Nisa LaPoint. So far that pair has not tested positive for the virus.

People experiencing homelessness are at particular risk for spreading the virus because often they live in close quarters with extremely limited sanitation facilities available, said Terese Howard, spokesperson for Denver Homeless Out Loud.

Shelters aren’t outfitted for the six-foot social distancing measures recommended by national and global health experts, and Howard said many feel unsafe there.

“A lot of people have come up asking for tents and other survival gear,” Howard said. “They feel safer in those tent encampments than those staying in the shelters.”

City officials are working to find individual rooms for those who test positive or need to be quarantined while awaiting test results.

Currently 119 individual rooms are available, Heather Burke, spokesperson for Denver’s Joint Information Center, said in an email.

“We’re working currently with hotel and motel operators to scale up the number of respite rooms that are needed to serve our community for individuals experiencing homelessness — we are in conversation for potentially hundreds of rooms,” Burke said.

Sixty of the available rooms are currently occupied, said Derek Woodbury, spokesperson for Denver’s Department of Housing Stability.

“These are persons who need to self-quarantine because they are highly vulnerable, are awaiting test results for COVID-19, or who have tested positive for the virus,” Woodbury said in an email.

But the 10 dozen rooms the city has found are only a fraction of what could be needed. Denver Chief Housing Officer Britta Fisher has put the the potential need at 3,900 rooms,, while Howard said it could be 10,000.

Even as efforts to secure rooms continue, some living on the brink of homelessness are being evicted from their short-term rental rooms — a move in the wrong direction, Alderman has said.

People living on the streets suffer from underlying health problems at a much higher rate than the housed, adding to the homeless population’s vulnerability to the virus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19.

Not only could the disease spread quickly among that population, but it could easily jump to Denver’s housed population as well, Howard and others said.

To help curb spread within shelters, Denver officials have opened a supplemental, around-the-clock shelter better suited for social distancing, Burke said. That supplemental shelter is open to guests referred there for exhibiting symptoms of the virus, she said.

Fifteen people are currently in that shelter, Burke said.

Howard called on city officials to stop clearing out homeless encampments and instead provide portable bathrooms and hand-washing facilities. In addition, they must find and put to use vacant hotel, motel, apartment and dormitory rooms, she said. Recreational vehicles, tent cities and tiny homes are also possibilities, she said.

“Our whole society is put at risk because our government, our people, our businesses, our hotels, our whole society refuses to actually care about the lives of people without housing,” Howard said.

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