March 13, 2020

Concern about the spread of coronavirus is widespread, including in Fort Collins’ homeless community. Colorado has declared a state of emergency, and action is needed at all levels of government to protect public health, limit the spread of this disease, and help people stay alive. Right now, we are being told to “stay home,” wash our hands frequently, and practice “social distancing.” This advice utterly ignores people who do not have a home to stay in, who live in cities without adequate public hand-washing facilities, or who are incarcerated in jails, prisons, and ICE detention centers.

Fort Collins needs an emergency preparedness plan that includes homeless, marginalized, and incarcerated people. We must be sure that there will be adequate resources and information offered to homeless, marginalized, and incarcerated people in our community, as well as our community at large, and we need to make sure that everyone has the resources to prevent infection.

We believe that responsible, productive conversations about the needs of our community are necessary at times like this. Panic and misinformation are dangerous, and often accompanied by violence and backlash against marginalized people. We reject racist, xenophobic discourse and policy-making, including efforts to ignore, or even blame homeless people for disease spread. Local governments must resist frightened NIMBY-esque responses that serve to further isolate or reduce services for people experiencing homelessness, and instead follow a sensible public-health based approach.

Our goal is to encourage comprehensive, community-based measures that are pragmatic, sufficient, and grounded in an understanding that no human being is disposable. We understand that municipal, county, and state governments are already responding to the coronavirus, and we stand with them in demanding that they receive all the resources they need.

The Fort Collins Homeless Coalition (FCHC) makes the following suggestions to the City of Fort Collins, Larimer County, and the State of Colorado:

A. Homelessness

People experiencing homelessness are significantly more vulnerable to diseases like Covid-19. A person experiencing homelessness in Fort Collins cannot “stay home” or practice “social distancing” – we are more susceptible to contracting the disease due to ongoing systemic injustices such as inadequate sleep, over-crowded shelters, and lack of hand-washing facilities. If infected, people experiencing homelessness are much more likely to get seriously ill, because we are more likely to have underlying medical conditions and lack of access to healthcare. The needs of homeless people are not being met in our community. It is imperative to direct significant emergency resources to prevent infections, illness, and deaths.

  1. Fort Collins and Larimer County should have a plan for housing people who are sick, including people experiencing homelessness, people who are incarcerated and/or people with disabilities. This should include plans for what to do if our hospitals become over-saturated (as has happened in other areas where infection rates rise rapidly). Nobody should be forcibly “quarantined” on the streets or in our existing shelters. People who have been exposed, who are medically advised to ‘self-quarantine,’ who have symptoms or are likely to be contagious should all be safely and humanely housed, in spaces that do not promote the further spread of disease.
  2. The City, County, and State should also immediately provide temporary housing for anyone currently experiencing homelessness who is over 50, immune-compromised, or otherwise at heightened risk of serious complications, including death, if infected. Public health officials across the world agree that the coronavirus is most dangerous for people over 50, and for people with underlying health conditions; preventing infection is a crucial measure to disease containment and saving lives.
  3. The City and County need to work on identifying and acquiring appropriate space, including housing, to ensure that quarantine spaces are humane, effective, and adequate. Possibilities include vacant city, state, and county-owned buildings, or other facilities such as motels.
  4. Shelters and other services must remain open. Fort Collins and Larimer County should provide added resource and support to ensure that services for people experiencing homelessness are maintained or increased, including additional staffing if needed.
    1. This includes emergency medical resources, such as an ample supply of masks to be given only to people who are sick or have symptoms.
    2. This should also include expanded shelter hours, so that people experiencing homelessness can get more sleep. Current shelter hours are insufficient to maintain health.
    3. Plans should be made to expand Emergency Winter Shelter Services if the emergency appears likely to continue past April 30th.
    4. Shelters should immediately adopt measures to reduce the spread of infection, and keep people healthier. This includes measures such as positioning cots, beds, and sleeping mats at a minimum distance of six feet apart (to reflect the CDC interim guidelines for avoiding ‘close contact’).
  5. The County should ensure that shelter staff and service providers have an adequate supply of cleaning supplies, and that they are regularly sanitizing surfaces to prevent infection.
  6. Additional hot-water hand-washing stations should be added to existing shelters, as well as emergency shelters, resource centers, and anywhere else that people stay or gather.
  7. Fort Collins should have protocols for shelters and outreach workers to implement around screening for illness, and for what to do after someone has been screened. Information about these protocols should be widely available in both English and Spanish. Information about suspected cases should be gathered and reported to the appropriate health officials. However, all information must remain anonymous, and must not under any circumstances lead to any involvement of law enforcement, ICE, or the detention of people against their will as the result of engaging with outreach workers or medical services.

Homeless people are already at greater risk because of compromised health due to stress, chronic sleep deprivation, and exposure. Given the crisis we are facing, we need an immediate moratorium on law enforcement actions that break up camps, remove survival gear, or prevent people from sleeping, resting, sitting, or lying down in public spaces, so that people who sleep outdoors can stay in touch with health outreach workers, have consistent access to hygiene stations, can keep their stuff, and can get enough sleep to keep their immune systems up.

  1. For the duration of this emergency, Fort Collins’ ban on camping must be suspended. People need sleep, especially if they are trying to remain healthy, fight off an infection, or recover after a serious illness.
  2. There should be an immediate moratorium on towing vehicles that house people, or ticketing people who sleep in their vehicles, as these individual accommodations make it possible for people to self-quarantine.

B. Jails

People who are incarcerated are also significantly more vulnerable to epidemics, and for similar reasons. Jails, prisons, and ICE detention centers are often over-crowded, lack adequate sanitation, and are so stressful that incarceration itself can cause significant health issues. People who are incarcerated have higher rates of the underlying medical issues that correlate to high mortality with this virus, and receive inadequate healthcare. Moreover, people who are incarcerated are often left out of emergency planning altogether, or subjected to even worse, more dangerous, and more inhumane conditions as a result of failure to plan. Examples of this include increased reliance on solitary confinement, limits on or elimination of visits from loved ones, increased exposure to unsanitary or dangerous living conditions, refusal to transport people to court dates, cancellation of court proceedings, and being treated as a source of carceral slave labor. This is absolutely not acceptable.

  1. An outbreak at Larimer County Jail (LCJ) could lead to further shortages of medical treatment. Medical teams should be dispatched to cover all needs, and physicians on-site must have the authority to dictate necessary changes in facility conditions in order to treat the sick and stem the spread of the illness.
  2. Iran has temporarily released 54,000 imprisoned people to prevent COVID-19 from spreading like wildfire through the country’s prison system. We believe this tactic must also be considered in the United States given the overcrowded state and torturous conditions of U.S. jails and prisons, and the high likelihood of catastrophic viral outbreaks in jails, prisons, and ICE detention facilities.
    1. Larimer County Jail (LCJ) should immediately release all people who are awaiting trial (“pre-trial detainees,” or people who have not been tried or convicted of any crime), and also release as many other people as possible. Nobody who is not considered a threat to public safety should be processed into the LCJ.
    2. LJC should immediately release anyone who is over 50, immune-compromised, or otherwise at heightened risk of serious complications, including death, if infected.
    3. The City of Fort Collins contracts for three ‘beds’ at the LJC for low-level municipal offenders, and should hold all three ‘beds’ empty for the duration of this epidemic.
  3.  All people should have access to medical care regardless of immigration status. Hospitals, public health departments and local governments should actively protect all non-citizens seeking medical care from interactions with ICE and CBP.
  4. People who are incarcerated should not be subjected to further punitive measures as guise for containing the virus. People should not be put in solitary confinement, be denied or have restrictions on visits, lose opportunities to communicate with people outside through mail/phone/video, or have restricted access to legal assistance, programming, or privileges within the facility. These restrictions only further exacerbate negative mental and physical conditions.

C. General

People across the country are more vulnerable to becoming homeless during this outbreak. Many Americans do not have paid sick leave, and will not be able to afford their rent or mortgage payment if they lose their job. Many do not have access to health care, cannot afford to pay for what access they have, or have been marginalized to the point where they cannot access medical services at all. For all of these people and more, a serious illness can cause homelessness. We need protections in place so that nobody loses their home during this epidemic.

  1. The City and County should impose an immediate moratorium on evictions for the duration of this epidemic. Nobody should lose their home during a global pandemic.
  2. Governments at every level should ensure that everyone has free access to testing, treatment, and care.
  3. We need excellent and wide-spread public education, in English and Spanish, about the virus, how to avoid infection, and best safety practices. These educational efforts must also actively dispel racist, xenophobic assumptions about the disease, such as racist characterizations of Asian people representing a public health threat.

This list of recommendations comes from the Fort Collins Homeless Coalition (FCHC) in collaboration and solidarity with people currently experiencing homelessness in Fort Collins, and will be kept updated as we continue to receive input. Many of our recommendations were adapted from this amazing resource created by Kelly Hayes, a queer indigenous organizer and nonviolent direct action trainer with We Charge Genocide and the Chicago Light Brigade, which she published on transformativespaces.org.