For the second time in a week, plans to create an isolation shelter to prevent the coronavirus pandemic from ravaging the city’s homeless population hit an eleventh-hour roadblock.
A much-heralded effort to transition the City Auditorium into a 70-bed ward for homeless people with symptoms of the virus was put on hold late Wednesday “due to unforeseen insurance and staffing complications,” said Amy Triandiflou, a spokeswoman for the Community Health Partnership, which was helping coordinate the effort.
The setback left in limbo efforts to efforts to protect the 500 to 600 adults who sleep in shelters every night in Colorado Springs, while keeping hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients.
It came after another effort to open a larger, 130-bed isolation shelter on Springs Rescue Mission’s campus on the southern border of downtown Colorado Springs fell apart Friday morning, also due to insurance liability issues.
Further details on the latest delay were not released Wednesday. The latest issues were different from the problems that kept the previous location from opening last week, said Jennifer Mariano, director of homeless programs for Community Health Partnership and administrator for the Pikes Peak Continuum of Care. She added that the City Auditorium remains an option for the shelter.
The last-minute delay in opening the shelter represented a stunning turn of events that left nonprofit leaders once again without any place to sequester sick people where they wouldn’t potentially infect hundreds of others.
Hours earlier, Mayor John Suthers noted the dire need for such a building during a news conference announcing its planned opening, calling it “absolutely vital in providing respite for these individuals while keeping our other homeless shelters safe and free of disease.”
Throughout the last couple of of weeks, nonprofit leaders have lamented the difficulty of setting up an entirely new shelter from scratch, calling it a “herculean” effort that had never before been attempted.
“This whole situation is completely unprecedented,” said Mariano said. “Nobody has protocols in place for an event of this magnitude, and so that’s part of the problem.
“I really feel everybody is doing the best we can, given the information that is changing on almost a daily, hourly basis.”
On Wednesday morning, the shelter appeared to be just hours from opening.
The auditorium’s wooden floors were covered in heavy-duty tarps, weighted down by rows of green cots spaced several feet apart. Several boxes of disposable sleeping bags were loaded inside, and a trailer equipped with three shower stalls sat in a nearby parking lot.
Dozens of additional cots were stashed nearby, should the shelter exceed its initial capacity.
Peak Vista Community Health Center staff and nurses was expected to visit the auditorium daily, checking on patients’ well-being, and recommending if any need more intense care. Two doctors planned be on call 24/7 to provide medical advice.
Organizers were adamant that the shelter wouldn’t include much in the way of medical care.
“This isn’t for medical treatment — this is essentially their home while they get better,” Mariano said.
The shelter was expected to cost $750,000 to operate for three months, Mariano said. Much of that tab was expected to fall to Springs Rescue Mission, which supplied 10 staff members and three security guards to operate the facility.
City, county and nonprofit officials planned to seek help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which could cover up to 75% of those costs. But there was no guarantee that funding would be awarded, leaving nonprofits scrambling for donations.
Without a place to quarantine homeless people, government officials and nonprofit leaders fear a doomsday scenario of one person infecting hundreds in the crowded homeless shelters.
Homeless advocates say the shelters are just as vulnerable to a disastrous outbreak of the coronavirus as nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
Many homeless people suffer from myriad health ailments, and their bodies are often older than their age might suggest, due to the wear and tear of living outside and the lack of access to healthy food, exercise and health care. And already, many homeless people cite concerns about catching respiratory illnesses as a reason for avoiding shelters.
While some cities have spaced mattresses farther apart inside their homeless shelters by removing beds, nonprofits in Colorado Springs has yet to follow suit.
Instead, local organizations have told guests to sleep head to toe to create a little more distance.
Nine people have been refused entry into the Springs Rescue Mission due to symptoms of the virus, and were referred to local hospitals, said Travis Williams, the nonprofit’s chief development officer.
People with mild symptoms at the Salvation Army’s R.J. Montgomery shelter have been given masks, because they have nowhere else to go, said Capt. Doug Hanson, who leads the nonprofit’s local chapter.
Lately, few — if any — people have showed up sick, he said. And no positive cases among the homeless community have been announced.
That doesn’t make the new shelter any less necessary, Hanson said. Before word of the delay spread, Hanson voiced relief at its pending opening.
“These are the things you have to have in place before you need them,” Hanson said.