Denver, nonprofits to pick up staffing gap as National Guard pulls out of homeless shelters

Most of the 250 National Guard troops staffing some of Denver’s homeless shelters will pull out of their posts Monday, leaving short-handed city staff and private partners to bridge that staffing gap, officials say.

That bridge is possible, albeit difficult, to build, said Cathy Alderman, spokesperson for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. But the data show the necessity: Despite city efforts to provide more space in pre-existing and temporary shelters to curb the spread of the virus, 341 people experiencing homelessness have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, as of Tuesday, said city spokesperson Heather Burke. Six have died.

The city is hiring to make up for the lost workforce and partnering nonprofits like the Denver Rescue Mission are following suit as well as pivoting existing employees to maintain the levels of service currently in place for people experiencing homelessness.

Gov. Jared Polis ordered the troops to staff existing homeless shelters about two months ago, allowing city officials and nonprofits to shift their workers to new group shelters at the National Western Complex’s Hall of Education and the Denver Coliseum.

City officials, politicians and nonprofit leaders had asked for more help from the governor but were turned down.

The National Western site offers about 700 beds for men, while the Coliseum can host about 400 women. Both are in high demand and will likely be needed for quite some time, said Alderman.

The National Western contract ends Monday, but the city is seeking to extend it to July 15, said spokesperson Derek Woodbury. And the city has contracted for services at the Coliseum through September.

“I can’t envision a scenario where we don’t need those two locations for a while,” Alderman said. “Where would those people go if those facilities close down?”

The first cases of the virus hit the homeless population at the end of March. The group makes up about half a percent of Denver’s population but accounts for nearly 7% of the city’s overall COVID-19 cases, said Britta Fisher, Denver’s chief housing officer.

Not only is the pandemic driving more people to the shelters, Alderman said, but numbers are also up because recent rainfall has pushed more people inside.

To maintain the new and old shelters alongside individual hotel and motel rooms — meant to safely house those experiencing symptoms — Fisher said Denver has moved existing employees and hired on-call employees. In addition, the Denver Rescue Mission, which has staffed the Hall of Education shelter, has hired 58 employees, said spokesperson Nicole Tschetter.All of those employees will be ready to move in as the troops pull out.

But more people are needed every day, Tschetter said — especially volunteers who can work meal shifts.

While the need for the shelters is expected to continue, Fisher said, the availability of the Coliseum and the Hall of Education could depend on the city’s overall recovery. Those buildings could be needed for other things whenever large gatherings are allowed again.

“We’ve used event venues to create space,” she said. “When they have a market proposition to get back to business, that impacts our ability to utilize those spaces.”

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