COVID homeless hotels close from Denver to Anchorage, sending some back to the streets

By Jesse Bedayn, The Associated Press

As Charlie Gilmore collected his belongings on Friday to leave the Denver hotel that had been his home and that of 137 others previously homeless during the pandemic, he wondered where he would be spending the night.

The 58-year-old is one of thousands of homeless people across the country who have found relief in motel rooms during the pandemic but now face uncertainty as hotels close, the special government funding during the pandemic dwindles and leases come to an end. .

Cities from Anchorage to New Orleans has ended or is in the process of ending its hotel programs, which offered a good alternative to crowded homeless shelters amid the spread of COVID-19.

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“Somewhere down the road there’s a bunch of cedars,” Gilmore said, pointing to nearby trees as he sat on a neon sleeping bag designed for the freezing weather as winter approaches. from Denver.

The Quality Inn in Denver where Gilmore lived was rented from the private landlord by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. It has provided rooms for people over the age of 65 and those at higher risk of contracting serious illness related to COVID-19 during the pandemic.

Opened in April 2020, FEMA funds directed through Denver to the Coalition have helped keep the hotel in business for the past 2 1/2 years. But the total $9 million spent on the lease and the additional $5-6 million in operational costs have become unsustainable, said John Parvensky, president and CEO of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

“We’re kind of in a catch-22,” said Parvensky, who said case management was still provided to Quality Inn residents. “It was not designed to be a long-term solution.”

Some leaving the Quality Inn in Denver have found permanent housing, others are moving into shelters, some are back on the streets, and a few are moving into temporary hotel rooms paid for by Housekeys Action Network Denver, or HAND, who launched a GoFundMe page. to buy camping gear and fund hotel stays. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless is also participating.

As of Sept. 12, only 57 of the hostel’s 138 residents had any type of temporary or long-term housing, according to a letter from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Updated figures from the organization are not yet available.

Anjanette Gallegos, 54, who sat outside the beige Quality Inn on Friday in Denver, was waiting for a Lyft ride to move into a new apartment she had secured, but said leaving the community was bittersweet.

Having a couch surfed before the pandemic, having your own bedroom was a godsend.

“A house isn’t a house unless you can call it your own house,” Gallegos said.

Brett Sterba, another Quality Inn resident, said he doesn’t yet know where he will pitch his tent on Friday night, but plans to eventually return to a Denver street corner where he twirls a sign with smiley faces to money.

“It bothers me a bit,” he said of the hotel’s closure. “I thought it was going really well and it’s a shame they don’t have something more permanent like that.”

Housekeys Action Network Denver organizer Terese Howard believes the hotel’s operations should have been extended.

“If a year or two ago that effort had been spent on finding permanent housing, it could have been avoided,” Howard said.

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless has purchased a hotel in the Denver area and is in the process of acquiring a second for permanent housing as part of a wider trend across the country – boosted by the success pandemic-era programs – to convert typical tourist accommodations into long-term options.

Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said while it’s sad to see temporary accommodations in hotels closing, it has provided an important blueprint for homeless advocates across the country.

“It really taught us a lesson about how we could really solve this problem in a holistic and fundamental way,” he said.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “Project Homekey” program grew out of what the state called Project Roomkey – an initiative that housed homeless people in hotels across the state. “Project Homekey,” which began in June 2020, is turning vacant unused motels, hotels, and other properties into permanent supportive housing. The state buys the properties, conceals them and gives them to local governments who then contract with local suppliers for the necessary services.

Newsom last month announced nearly $700 million from the program for 35 new projects. This brings the total to more than 200 projects planned to create more than 12,500 permanent and temporary housing units.

Newsom said last month that the program is “changing lives across the state” and called it a “role model for the nation.”

Whitehead and Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said the biggest barrier to expanding hotel rooms for the homeless is funding.

“I would blame it on the federal government,” Whitehead said. “We are back to business as usual, not providing enough resources for the issues.”

Oliva pointed out that private rooms provide homeless people with security, privacy and stability, and increase their likelihood of finding permanent housing.

“It must be devastating for someone to have gained some measure and ability to have stability and some comfort in their life to have come out of a program like that,” she said. “That’s what we didn’t want to happen.”

Associated Press writer Donald Thompson contributed to this article from Sacramento, California.

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