As winter storm descends on the Front Range, community groups and Denver officials ramp up homeless outreach efforts

Officials say hotel and motel rooms are available ‘if needed.’ But it’s unclear how, or when, those options are offered.

By: - March 12, 2021 11:11 pm

Tents and people’s belongings line Wazee Street near the Coors Field Stadium in Denver on Oct. 28, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

As a major winter storm slams the Front Range, city officials and community groups are ramping up efforts to get people living outdoors into shelter or get them the winter gear necessary to survive the storm.

Denver officials announced on Thursday that they were opening an emergency shelter space for men and transgender individuals at the St. Charles Recreation Center beginning Friday at 7 p.m. through Wednesday at 10 a.m. Transportation to shelters will be available at the day shelter at Lawrence Street Community Center at 2222 Lawrence St. 

Women and transgender individuals are directed to access shelter at 1370 Elati St. City officials say they are monitoring bed availability for women across the shelter network, according to a press release, and will provide motel rooms, if needed.

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“Our biggest encouragement today is for everyone who is outside to seek inside accommodation,” Britta Fisher, director of the city’s Department of Housing Stability, or HOST, said during a media briefing on Friday. “That’s why we’ve made every bed available, every motel option available.”

Fisher touted during the media briefing that the city’s shelter system has increased by 60% since last year and can currently accommodate more than 2,200 people per night. That number includes shelter beds as well as hotel and motel rooms acquired by the city for individuals that are vulnerable to COVID-19 or currently have it and need a place to recover.

A more complete list of Denver metro area shelters for individuals and families can be found on the city’s website.

Hotel and motel rooms available if needed, though information scant

Denver city officials have provided little information regarding who qualifies for hotel/motel vouchers, how people can access them and how many rooms have been given out thus far.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently approved $60.8 million in reimbursements for Denver to cover costs related to emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness throughout the pandemic, according to a city press release. The funds will be used to extend several contracts with hotels providing non-congregate shelter and other services as well as the construction of a second large shelter facility in northeast Denver.

The side of the building of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless’ Stout Street Health Center in Denver. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

“We are continuing to serve individuals and families in motels, both as part of our ongoing COVID-19 response efforts to keep people safe, and as part of our shelter strategy,” Derek Woodbury, a spokesperson for HOST, said in an email. “We have worked throughout the week to de-densify shelter occupancy by transferring many guests to available non-congregate shelter rooms at motel properties.”

In response to a media question regarding how many room vouchers were given out during three homeless sweeps that occurred ahead of the storm this week, Woodbury said that the department doesn’t have that information available. “These types of motel placements can originate from a number of different organizations,” he said.

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On Thursday night, 2,224 people in Denver stayed in a homeless shelter or a city provided motel room, with 176 beds being vacant in shelters or motels, according to Woodbury. “We also had room for an additional 105 people last night across our inventory of 800+ hotel rooms that are reserved for the COVID-19 purposes of providing protective action and respite.” 

Providers and community groups ramp up homeless outreach efforts 

Cathy Alderman, vice president of public policy and communications for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said that the group’s Denver Street Outreach team — which is a collaboration between her organization and homeless providers St. Francis Center and Urban Peak — have been going out throughout the week to encourage those living outdoors to seek shelter from the storm.

“If they’re not willing to go inside, (outreach staff) are finding out what kind of needs they have in terms of warm weather gear, water, food, hand warmers, that kind of stuff and then they’re taking that out to them,” she said. 

She said it’s unclear how many outreach staff members will be responding throughout the weekend. 

“For the last storm, we had about a dozen folks taking shifts and just trying to get out to people to see if they’ve changed their mind and have decided that they’d like to come in for shelter,” Alderman said. “If the snow comes down the way we know it could, that makes it really difficult.” 

Mutual aid groups and community organizations have ramped up their efforts to distribute winter survival gear to unhoused residents leading up to the storm.

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Ryan Harwood, a volunteer with another mutual aid group called SAFE Boulder County, said that the group distributed 35 tents, 35 sleeping bags, 20 sleeping pads, some jackets, warm food and hygiene kits to community members throughout Boulder on Thursday evening. 

The Comrade Cooperative, a Denver-based mutual aid group which formed in November, has been collecting winter survival supplies such as tents, tarps, sleeping bags, coats, socks and hand warmers throughout the week to distribute throughout the storm. The group is collecting winter gear donations at the the Amethyst Coffee Company and the Mutiny Info Cafe on Broadway until 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 13.

The group is also accepting monetary donations on Venmo (@comrade-el) and on Cash app ($comradecoop).

Concerns regarding COVID-19 outbreaks at homeless shelters

Though Alderman hopes people are more inclined to seek shelter in response to the storm, she pointed to a variety of reasons why someone would opt out of staying in a homeless shelter.

“People are afraid of being packed into a tight space, sharing gear with other people and getting COVID,” she said. “So there’s still a lot of fear about that.”

“People have had some bad experiences at the shelter,” Alderman added. “They’ve had belongings stolen, their mental health has been impacted, they don’t like being in a closed environment or they’re not able to get sleep because there’s so many noises.”

Alderman said testing at the homeless shelters is occurring on a rotating schedule approximately every two weeks. When a new person enters a shelter, they aren’t tested for COVID but are screened for symptoms. 

“We’ve had outbreaks in a lot of the shelters,” she said. “We’re a year into this and I think there have been over 1,300 known cases among people experiencing homelessness in the Denver area.”

She said to date, nine people experiencing homelessness have died directly from COVID, and another six people died after contracting the virus.

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Moe Clark
Moe Clark

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Newsline reporter that covered criminal justice, housing and homelessness, and other social issues.

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