Hotel and motel rooms have a place in Denvers future strategy for homelessness, officials say

Early in the pandemic, Denver officials realized they needed hundreds of hotel and motel rooms to keep people who are homeless safe from COVID-19.

The effort has been so successful they want to expand it further.

“It really helped to illuminate the success of this type of intervention,” Angie Nelson, the city’s deputy director of housing stability and homelessness resolution, said.

To date, Nelson said the city has helped more than 3,300 people living on the streets into rooms. It’s an effective way to keep them safe and help them transition into housing but Nelson said she wants to be able to offer those rooms to the broader homeless population.

Two people given rooms during the pandemic, Scott Helms, 56, and Lisa Bohanon, 55, sat outside a hotel on the north edge of the Jefferson Park neighborhood Thursday afternoon. Bohanon gave the facilities, where she has been living for several months, a slow and deliberate thumbs down and Helms nodded in agreement.

“But it’s better than living on the streets,” Bohanon clarified.

The pair acknowledged that the effort has kept them safer during the pandemic and would almost certainly help others living on the streets or in the city’s shelters.

Since the beginning of the year city officials and partnering organizations have connected about 260 people who were homeless to more permanent housing, according to Cathy Alderman, vice president of communications and public policy for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. The majority of those people had been staying in hotel and motel rooms.

“It’s much more effective than trying to house people directly out of shelters and directly out of encampments,” Alderman said. “It’s much easier if someone is stable, with their own space, a place to keep their belongings, a place with a telephone and computer access.”

The rooms have indeed provided stability, Helms and Bohanon agreed. Shelters can be dangerous and those staying in them run the risk of having their few possessions stolen. So a room to yourself counts as a luxury, they said.

“It saved me,” Bohanon said.

At the same time, people staying in the rooms feel as though they’re treated like children, Bohanon said, glancing at an armed guard out of the corner of one eye. You’re not allowed to have guests and there is an 11 p.m. curfew. A few weeks back she missed the cutoff and staff locked her out of her room.

“That’s the price you pay,” Helms said. “You’ve gotta live by the rules here or they will write you up and throw you out.”

To continue the program that gives Helms and Bohanon rooms, Nelson’s office must extend its existing contract with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. A Denver City Council committee unanimously approved an extension worth $11.13 million on Wednesday, sending the measure to the full council later this month. If the council extends the contract, which appears likely, the city and its partners will be able to provide up to 810 rooms through June, 2022.

But that much money is only available because the federal government will reimburse the city’s expenses as it responds to the pandemic. That means the rooms are only available for those like Helms and Bohanon who are at high risk of complications if they contract the virus or those who are already symptomatic rather than the broader homeless population, Nelson said.

The Coalition has worked to provide people rooms for at least 15 years, Alderman said, but funding came from many different sources, so service was difficult to provide consistently. Federal funding has made providing rooms easier by consolidating those efforts, she said.

But eventually that money will dry up, Nelson said, and if the city is to expand the program, funding will have to come from somewhere else.

The rooms, combined with sanctioned encampments, tiny homes and rapid rehousing, would make for a more holistic strategy to address Denver’s growing homeless population, Nelson said.

“We find that temporary housing that looks like real housing is good for folks, because real housing is what everybody needs,” Nelson said.

The rooms would help, 77-year-old Joseph Johnston said, but they’d have to be paired with mental health and addiction services as well because many living on the streets suffer from those ailments.

Johnston sat outside his second-floor room with his door open and he looked across the interstate toward Denver’s smoggy skyline. He said he had been moving from one couch to another until March, 2020, when he was placed into a room, which has provided him a bit of comfort.

“But if you miss that last bus from downtown, it’s a long walk,” Johnston added, as he dangled a cigarette from his fingertips.

Indeed, wraparound services are included in the city’s strategy, alongside more hotel and motel rooms.  Mayor Michael Hancock announced in May that the city will buy a 94-room hotel on the city’s northeast side to shelter up to 200 people. The sale should be finalized and the shelter open by the end of the year, Chief Housing Office Britta Fisher has said.

Fisher said in June her team is looking to buy more properties for the same purpose, though it’s not clear how many. Finding property owners willing to sell to the city has been a challenge, she said.

Some funding is currently available, Alderman said, pointing to Measure 2B, which voters approved with about a 65% majority last November. That measure increased Denver’s sales tax and should raise about $40 million each year to help people experiencing homelessness.

And millions more could be on the way. Hancock’s five-part, $450 million bond proposal, on Denver’s upcoming November ballot, includes a $38.6 million chunk for housing and shelter projects. Should voters approve the measure, city officials could use the money to buy or convert buildings into shelters.

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