Greeley apartments turned into homeless shelter as COVID-19 inspires new housing solutions

There were eight days left in the month, and enough of Bruce Brooks’ Social Security check to cover renting a hotel room in Greeley for exactly none of them.

Brooks, 61, is a former heavy equipment operator forced into an early retirement by a stroke. Because of his age, he’d be at a higher risk of complications if he were to get COVID-19, which has spread widely in homeless shelters in Colorado.

Fortunately, the owner of the hotel where he was staying helped connect him with the United Way of Weld County, which had just opened a new type of shelter in an unused apartment building. The rooms are simple, with a bed, miniature refrigerator, microwave, two chairs and the kind of foldable table that your school probably pulled out of storage for the annual bake sale. But it’s safe, warm and as quiet as can be expected when you have a neighbor on either side, Brooks said.

“If this was a regular place that was open (to rent), I’d stay here,” he said.

The shelter, in a formerly vacant building on the Good Samaritan Society’s Bonell campus in Greeley, has 30 rooms housing people at a higher risk from COVID-19 because of their age or chronic conditions. It opened Nov. 6 and will run through April 15, said Shawn Walcott, assistant director of household stability for United Way of Weld County. The campus also includes a nursing home, an assisted living facility and seniors-only apartments.

It’s one example of nonprofit organizations and governments looking beyond traditional shelters during the pandemic. The states of California and Oregon purchased hotels to use as transitional or permanent housing for their homeless populations, according to the Associated Press, and the city of Denver rents 800 hotel rooms for people who are at a high risk of COVID-19 complications or need a safe place to quarantine.

Normally, the United Way of Weld County operates an 80-bed emergency shelter during the winter, Walcott said, but it can only take 39 people with social distancing. They looked into renting hotel rooms, but the city of Greeley helped set up the partnership with Good Samaritan Society, he said.

Benjamin Snow, director for economic health and housing for Greeley, said the city used some of its funding from the federal coronavirus relief package to make sure the plumbing and other utilities were ready for temporary residents. He estimated about 40 people were staying in the apartment shelter, because some rooms can accommodate couples.

Reducing the number of people in the congregate shelter makes it safer for those who stay there, by allowing for distancing, Snow said.

“This has essentially bought us some time during COVID-19,” he said.

Ryan Mertz, administrator of the Good Samaritan Society’s Bonell community in Greeley, said the building was originally intended for affordable housing, but the plans fell through and it sat vacant for at least a year. In the spring, they struck a deal with Greeley to accommodate people who were less severely ill if hospitals needed to free up beds. Ultimately, it wasn’t needed for hospital overflow, so they made a new agreement to use it as a shelter during the cold months, he said.

In Denver, federal disaster money allows for temporary safe housing in hotels during the pandemic, said Cathy Alderman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. A permanent option also opened earlier this year, in the former Quality Inn & Suites at 36th Avenue and Quebec Street, she said. Tenants in the complex, called Fusion Studios, pay 30% of their income toward rent, with the rest covered by voucher programs.

It took about six months and $8.4 million to renovate the hotel for long-term residents, which is faster and cheaper than building new affordable housing, Alderman said. Some tenants likely will move into market-rate housing, while others who need more support may live out their days there, she said.

“I hope we see more of it,” she said, referring to repurposing buildings.

The apartment-style shelter in Greeley is more expensive than a typical congregate shelter, because it’s open 24 hours instead of just overnight, Walcott said. In a normal year, it costs about $220,000 to run the congregate shelter, but this year the congregate shelter will cost $380,000 because of the need for extra cleaning supplies and security to enforce distancing rules, he said. The apartment-style shelter will cost about $600,000.

The apartment model has advantages, though, because private rooms reduce opportunities for conflict, and residents made fewer hospital visits in the first month, Walcott said.

Some residents reported their health was improving. Michael Lynch, who said he’d been experiencing homelessness for 10 years, was a frequent patient in local emergency rooms, with 113 visits in 2016. Shortly before he moved into the shelter in November, he’d been unable to walk because of complications from alcohol use disorder. As of early December, he said he hadn’t had alcohol in three weeks and was starting to get around better with a walker.

“I probably would have died out there this winter,” he said.

A study from University of Washington found that people who were moved into hotels in Seattle because of concerns about COVID-19 reported better physical and mental health and were more likely to move into permanent housing than those living in traditional shelters, perhaps because they didn’t have to spend as much time worrying about day-to-day survival and could begin making plans.

After the cold-weather shelters close, the city and United Way will examine whether those living in apartments were more likely to move into permanent housing, Snow said. If the results are better, they could look at whether a similar set-up is feasible in the long-term, he said.

Brooks, who was previously living in a hotel, said he’s working on saving money for a deposit and the shelter’s housing navigators have taken him to check out apartment options. It’s easier than it was when he had to rent rooms, because the only expenses are groceries and food for Milo, a chihuahua and Pomeranian mix who acts as his service dog.

“Soon, maybe I’ll be back out on my own again,” he said.

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