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Advocates for Colorado's homeless sue state health department

Groups demand the state mandate empty housing to provide shelter for the city's homeless community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

DENVER — Colorado homeless advocates joined a lawsuit suing the state and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to open vacant residences, apartments and hotels to the city's homeless community during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, demands the court step in and require the state to open existing empty housing like vacant residences, apartments and hotels, to the city's homeless community living in shelters and on city streets as part of the state's coronavirus emergency response.

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Homeless individuals and homeless advocacy organizations from across the state of Colorado joined together as plaintiffs in this case, filed by attorney Jason Flores-Williams, because they said Colorado cities are not opening housing needed to keep homeless communities safe.  

"Opening new congregate shelters with more space, or putting those showing symptoms in hotels, does not stop the spread of this virus," the lawsuit states. "Individualized housing is necessary. Everyone must have a home to be able to follow stay at home orders."

Terese Howard, an organizer for Denver Homeless Outloud, said CDPHE has a duty to protect the health and safety of all Coloradans.

"They are fulfilling their duty by leaving people who are homeless in situations that are entirely the opposite of what our world, every major health organization in the world, including CDPHE are advising that folks do," said Howard. 

Nate Werner, who has been homeless for 20 years, said he has never seen shelters as packed as they are now during the pandemic. He said they are being forced to decide if they're going to sleep in a shelter with other sick people or stay out in the cold. 

"You’re going to get bumped by someone unintentionally," said Werner. "It's getting more and more aggressive, with the lack of places that we're allowed to go, and the places we're allowed to go, we're shoulder to shoulder."

"They're asking for an emergency hearing under the rule," said 9NEWS legal expert Whitney Traylor. "They're saying, look court, you have the power to tell this agency what to do. They're saying use your expertise and come up with other ways to help us."

Traylor added while an extreme measure under Governor Polis's emergency stay-at-home order, there is legal backing to request privately-owned properties to house the homeless, but it's an uphill battle. 

The lawsuit said there are about 19,452 unoccupied housing units in Denver. Plus, the COVID crisis has largely stopped travel, leaving a large majority of hotel rooms sitting empty. Between apartments and hotels, there is plenty to house all those without housing in Colorado, according to the lawsuit.

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