Boulder activists join Colorado homeless advocates in lawsuit against state health department regarding coronavirus

Seeking government plan to provide choice aside from residing in packed shelters, streets during coronavirus pandemic


Boulder activists joined a coalition of advocacy groups from across Colorado in a legal action filed Wednesday requesting the state government make safe provisions for the homeless during the coronavirus pandemic, citing shelters as potential hot spots for transmission.

The filing, a complaint “in the nature of mandamus,” or an attempt to order a government official to properly fulfill duties, was made in Denver District Court. Plaintiffs named in the suit are activist groups Boulder Rights Watch and the Boulder County-based Safe Access for Everyone, as well as Denver Homeless Out Loud, Fort Collins Homeless Coalition and Grand Junction-based Solidarity Not Charity.

Named as defendants are the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and its executive director, Jill Hunsaker Ryan.

The department declined to comment, as is typically the case regarding its involvement in pending litigation.

Denver-based attorney Jason Flores-Williams is representing the plaintiffs, who are asking the state to come up with solutions for the homeless during the pandemic to protect them from potential virus spread among tightly packed shelters, and the elements and vulnerability to violence and abuse that comes with urban camping.

With 10 people across the state in homeless shelters who have tested positive for the virus-caused illness COVID-19, the plaintiffs argue the conditions of homeless shelters are conducive to contagion.

“We are seeking for CDPHE to do its job,” Flores-Williams said. “To be involved in this process and take whatever steps are necessary to stop the spread of this deadly disease among the poor and homeless community, who are faced with this nightmare of a choice,” between shelters or the streets.

The activists are pointing to other cities that have made adjustments to services for people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic, including providing housing. Hotels in Oakland, Calif., are being used by homeless guests, reported, while Las Vegas is placing homeless encampments in parking lots as critics call for empty lodging businesses to be filled by the demographic during the crisis, according to Time.

“The Dep’t of Health, as stated, is assuredly doing the best it can under difficult circumstances, but its failure to fulfill its statutory mandate with regard to the homeless population of Colorado has contributed to a serious and shocking breach of medical safety procedures at homeless shelters, which increase the risk of Covid-19 contraction and transmission,” the Colorado activists’ court filing states.

While there were no homeless who have used Boulder County shelters to have tested positive, to Flores-Williams’ knowledge, as of Tuesday there were six homeless people experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 being monitored at the East Boulder Community Center. That’s where homeless with symptoms in Boulder and Longmont are being isolated to prevent spread among local shelter populations.

Boulder City Council members have lauded local officials who helped quickly convert the municipal building to a recovery center. The Council also declined Tuesday to pursue a safe parking program for people living in cars amid the outbreak following a city staff report highlighting complications with the idea.

In communities that have tried safe parking or sanctioned camping for the homeless — which Boulder officials were set to possibly explore this month prior to the outbreak — participants have disengaged services that seek exits from homelessness, increased crime rates were recorded, and those situations correlate with drug usage, Boulder Housing and Human Services Director Kurt Firnhaber told the Council.

“It has a health risk and provides a false sense of security and protection from the elements,” Firnhaber said. “These approaches are mostly used in warmer climates. It requires an organization to provide governance and leadership in actually operating such a facility. Lastly, it attracts other homeless individuals from other communities who are searching for that type of solution.”