On Monday, the Denver City Council approved the extension of two additional contracts held by the Department of Housing Stability (HOST) with motel/hotel operators to temporarily house approximately 800 people experiencing homelessness. In the midst of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, this extension is a lifeline to so many people who are unable to “stay at home” because they don’t have one. But is it enough?

The connection between housing and health has never been more apparent. People without housing faced exceedingly more complex problems at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak. Physical distancing requirements in shelters meant that there were fewer beds available. Fears about living in congregate settings with the threat of an aerosolized virus kept people from accessing what limited shelter space existed. Public health guidelines also recommended limiting interactions to a single household which discouraged people without homes from “doubling up” with friends and family to decrease the virus spread.

For people experiencing homelessness — who lack access to restrooms, hand-washing stations, and personal protective equipment like masks — the ability to stay safe during this public health crisis became more complicated as each day went by. This left many with no option other than to sleep outside, in tents, in cars, or other unimaginable places that lacked safety and security from the raging pandemic.

The ability to stay safe during this pandemic depends, almost exclusively, on having a safe place to isolate from exposure to the virus or to recover and quarantine after a positive COVID-19 test. The extension of these city contracts will continue to bring the security of “home” to 800 people in dire need, including those with high-risk health conditions who would likely suffer severe health complications, including death, if they were to contract COVID-19. These hotel/motel rooms also offer stability and the opportunity to begin working on long-term housing options that might not otherwise be able to be prioritized by those faced with the complex challenges of being unhoused.  

These contracts were, and are, critical to saving lives during the pandemic. But, the crisis of homelessness extends beyond the current public health emergency we find ourselves in today. Homelessness in Colorado and across the country has been steadily increasing with homelessness emergency response systems largely unsupported, underfunded, and quite plainly, ignored by local, state, and federal governments. Wages have failed to keep up with increasing costs of living, with exponential growth in housing costs, and with housing policies rooted in racism and exclusion.This failure has exacerbated the crisis. So too has the failure to support an adequate safety net for everyone no matter their race, age, gender identity, or health status. We now find ourselves with an unprecedented homelessness crisis in the midst of a public health crisis that has laid bare the failures of our systems.

The solution to homelessness is housing, but a healthy housing system requires investment. With the passage of Measure 2B this past November, the Denver community stepped up to make the investments needed in addressing homelessness within the City. However, homelessness extends beyond our city limits into suburbs and rural parts of Colorado. Yet, the state of Colorado doesn’t have a dedicated source of funding for homelessness and federal investments haven’t kept up with the growth of homelessness across the country.

Imagine how dramatically homelessness would decrease with support and funding from all three levels of government working together to address the crisis. We must look for the opportunity that has been created within this crisis. With people temporarily housed in these hotel/motel rooms, it would be unconscionable to tell them “time’s up” and they must now return to the shelter system or the streets. We must not waste this resource but let it become part of the long-term solution

We need to ensure these 800 people stay housed now and continue to use the hotel/motel resources to bring additional people inside, help them stabilize, and work on long-term housing plans. We need these resources desperately now, but we needed them before the pandemic, and we will need them when this disaster has subsided. For the public health of our community and neighbors, we must ensure that all Coloradans can safely “stay home” in a home they can call their own.

Cathy Alderman is the Chief Communications and Public Policy Officer for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. The mission of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless is to work collaboratively toward the prevention of homelessness and the creation of lasting solutions for homeless and at-risk families, children, and individuals throughout Colorado.