By Jamie Leary

DENVER (CBS4) – The city of Denver announced Tuesday it would be placing 600 beds inside the National Western Complex to help provide greater physical distancing for the city’s homeless population.

“It’s not necessarily more beds, it’s giving those beds more space and so we’re doing that with our partners at the National Western Center and we are also exploring how to do that for a women’s shelter in the future if we can get all the staffing together,” said Britta Fisher, Chief Housing Officer and Executive Director for the Department of Housing Stability for the city and county of Denver.

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(credit: CBS)

Fisher says Thursday morning, the space will open to men or those identifying as men, while the two overnight shelters for men in Denver will close.

“So what it will look like for a guest is, they’ll arrive to the National Western Center Expo Hall and as they come in there will be some screening protocols where people will be asked about any recent symptoms they may have had and have their temperature taken,” said Fisher.

She said there will also be showers, laundry facilities, WiFi, storage and most importantly, space.

“We’ll also have sleeping areas with cots with 10 by 10 spacing between those cots, so you know, 100 square feet per person which is roomier than we’re getting at our existing shelters.”

Video taken last week from inside of the Crossroads shelter, showed crammed, unsanitary conditions. The person taking the video did not want to be identified but said the floors were packed every night.

With other shelters closing, homeless advocates worry the same could happen to the new spaces created.

Rev. Amanda Henderson, the Executive Director of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado wrote in an e-mail Tuesday:

“We are happy steps are being taken to address the need for people living without homes to have more space in this vital time. However, we are concerned that congregate housing at this scale provides unnecessary risk. We must work to identify single-occupancy housing, or at the very least, sanctioned camp space- perhaps in a parking garage-  to assure those without homes are able to adequately distance themselves from others to keep healthy and safe.”

While mass congregate housing will provide efficiencies, it also brings risks and may sacrifice dignity for those struggling to survive in this time.

People will not be allowed to stay with partners, and will not have adequate space to keep their things. Again- we are happy to see the city take action- and we hope for a more coordinated and intentional effort to identify single occupancy spaces such as hotel rooms. This effort should be a collaborative effort between cities across Colorado and state leadership.”

Fisher says the process has had to have major collaboration to get to this point.

Her role was created just five months ago. The problem she faced was big prior to the pandemic, but now? The need to find shelter for Denver’s homeless, more critical than ever.

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“My job changed significantly at the beginning of March when the state of emergency was announced and I think it took me about one day to realize, we really need to work to house everybody as fast as we can.”

Fisher says the data the city has measured counted 3,943 people as experiencing homelessness on one night in January. While this includes those in transitional housing, the rise in unemployment and closures of many day shelters has created a major strain on those working to transition.

Fisher knows they will need much more than the space at the National Western Complex.

In the coming days, the city hopes to announce plans for up to 300 beds at the Denver Coliseum, available to women and those identifying as women.

The city says it’s also continuing to work with the state to add a total of 3,000 motel rooms.

(credit: CBS)

“We’re really pleased to have also announced today that we have another downtown hotel secured in a contract form that we’ll be taking to city council this next week. One hundred and fifty-one rooms in downtown Denver to meet with our already 120ish rooms so we’re meeting need more and more everyday,” she said.

She says while the work has been intense, it has been possibly because of community collaboration.

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“The city doesn’t do anything alone. We do this all in partnership whether that’s the business community the broader community the non-profits in our community and we really are so grateful that there are so many caring folks stepping forward in this health crisis.”

On Tuesday, the city also welcomed assistance from the Colorado National Guard, which is deploying approximately 250 unarmed personnel to help with current sheltering efforts. Personnel will be deployed to staff at existing overnight and day shelters, supplemental shelter, and activated respite rooms at hotel/motel sites.

“The National Guard is being deployed to our existing shelters, to our supplemental shelter Sand to our motel hotel strategy which is respite rooms and protective action rooms. That means, for somebody who is experiencing homelessness who may be at high risk of COVID, we’re working to get rooms that will help people get inside.”

While the help is welcomed, Fisher says Denver could use even more.

“We definitely need more hotel and motel owners that are willing to work with us in order to provide those rooms for families, for persons experiencing homelessness across the spectrum.”

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For the latest on how Denver is working to help the homeless community, click here.

Jamie Leary