By Kati Weis

DENVER (CBS4) – Across the state, Coloradans are told to avoid large gatherings and stay at home, but one group doesn’t have a home to stay in – the homeless community. Activists and elected officials are calling on Gov. Jared Polis for state support in proposed solutions, but which proposal is best depends on who you ask.

Some elected officials and advocacy groups are pushing for a larger shelter to open at a facility like the Coliseum. Other activist groups are asking the governor to act on his authority to commandeer vacant buildings from private property owners.

Mayor Michael Hancock tells CBS4 he has been working on the former solution with city council members, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, and state delegates for the past three weeks. They believe a larger shelter facility is key to protecting homeless populations from further spread of the virus.

A crowder shelter in Denver during the COVID-19 pandemic. (credit: Denver Homeless Out Loud)

“The reason it can be safer in a larger space, is because we can give people between 50 and 70 square feet of space per person, something we cannot do in our current facilities,” said Denver City Councilmember At-Large Robin Kniech during a Monday news conference.

Mayor Hancock said the city is likely days away from securing a larger space, but state support is crucial to closing that deal.

Monday, 23 elected officials sent a letter to Gov. Polis urging he support the Denver Office of Housing Stability to establish an auxiliary shelter.

Read the full letter here. 

But, other activists believe a more adequate solution would be for the governor to use his authority to commandeer vacant buildings and units to give the homeless an individualized place to stay during the pandemic.

“Otherwise, the homeless community is vulnerable, and if this stuff goes rampant in the homeless community, it’s going to go rampant everywhere,” said Benjamin Dunning with Denver Homeless Out Loud. “So, we’re protecting everyone in the process of doing this.”

Dunning and 46 other organizations wrote a letter to Polis Monday, as well, requesting he take executive action. Read their full letter here. 

Dunning said his organization has identified more than 4,000 vacant units that are currently available, but the owners of those units are not offering them up. Mayor Hancock told CBS4 he’s looking for 3,300, and has written a letter to hotel owners asking for their help. Read his full letter here.

A spokesperson for Polis said the governor is “leery” of opening a larger shelter, and he’s not committing on the commandeering option either. Instead, the governor would prefer to work with hotels to provide further shelter for the homeless.

“The Governor has authorized the Colorado National Guard to help staff and assist existing homeless shelters in Denver. We see it as a short term bridge solution,” a spokesperson wrote to CBS4. “The Governor is very leery of one large shelter in Denver and would prefer to work with hotel operators to provide shelter with maximum amount of social distancing in place.”

However, Hancock said it’s been tough finding businesses willing to volunteer their properties. So far, the city has secured 120 rooms, and Hancock said he’s on the brink of securing about 300 more this week.

“It’s not been easy,” Hancock said.

Meanwhile, many homeless people are seeking refuge on RTD trains and buses, which some operators worry will contribute to further spread of COVID-19.

“(The homeless) are riding and sleeping all day long, it’s not healthy for us operators, and it’s not healthy for the public at all,” said RTD train operator George Lelesz. “They are spitting on the trains, urinating on the trains, defecating on the trains.”

An RTD train operator makes a stop at the I-25 and Broadway Station in Denver.

An RTD train operator makes a stop at the I-25 and Broadway Station in Denver. (credit: CBS)

RTD said it continues to try to find more personal protective equipment for its operators, but like many industries, it’s facing a shortage.

“Recently, we purchased hand sanitizer from a company that normally produces CBD products but has changed 20% of their operations to producing hand sanitizer,” said RTD spokesperson Tina Jaquez. “(Sunday), we implemented rear-boarding, and suspended fares for additional protection and the front area of buses have been roped off to improve distancing between operators and passengers. We are trying to be as creative as possible to acquire hard-to-get PPE items.”

But, Lelesz said he and other operators believe RTD should temporarily shut down operations if the trains and buses aren’t safe.

Related: RTD Drivers Claim To Be Ill-Equipped For Coronavirus Protection

Jaquez sent CBS4 the following statement to address those concerns:

“To combat concerns about the homeless, our Security Team will uphold the Customer Code of Conduct, which stipulates there is to be no sleeping on vehicles, taking up more than one seat, or eating or drinking, and that all passengers must deboard at the final end point. If not, they will be asked to exit or be subject to trespassing.

Shutting down service is not an option as RTD was deemed a critical service by Governor Polis in his executive order for non-essential businesses to reduce in-person workforce by 50 percent. While there has been a large drop in ridership during the COVID-19 crisis, RTD’s buses, trains and paratransit services remain a vital lifeline for essential commuters, healthcare workers, public safety employees, government employees, grocery store workers and others continuing operations across the metro region. RTD continues to serve people who must work or take care of others, and for whom other transportation options are severely limited.”

Kati Weis