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Homelessness linked to the coronavirus has already hit Colorado

Adrift in the city

Quintana quickly learned one of the first lessons of homelessness: nothing is easy.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Tiffany Quintana crawls into her parked truck in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Denver where she and her boyfriend, James, lived. June 25, 2020.

The smallest tasks have become hours-long ordeals, made worse by the pandemic. The leisure centers being closed, she could not find anywhere to shower. Libraries were closed, and with them, easy internet access.

Denver’s new, large emergency shelters offered much-needed services, including showers, but many services in the women’s shelter were only available to people staying overnight, and Quintana was afraid to do so.

“I’m just trying to figure out what to do from point to point, how I’m going to eat without having to ask anyone, how I’m going to shower,” she said.

The federal government has rolled out billions for unemployment benefits and other benefits that have kept many people afloat. But countless others, including Quintana, have struggled to get that help. The state unemployment website threw an unsolvable error and she was stuck waiting for hours to access the call center. (The state is currently rolling out an automated reminder system.)

As the weeks passed and the summer heat set in, Quintana felt herself drifting further and further away from her old life.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Tiffany Quintana’s boyfriend James turns the key to their truck. June 25, 2020.

“I’m definitely homeless,” Quintana said one day, his voice wavering. “I can’t eat a home-cooked meal. I’m so craving a home-cooked meal. I want a shower. I want to watch TV. I want to lie down in a bed.

It was the fulfillment of his worst fears. She had watched her late father live homeless for years as he struggled with alcoholism and she remembered how much it stuck with him. He was still taking ‘bird baths’ in public toilets, long after being housed again – a sign of the lifelong trauma that can result from temporary homelessness.

Quintana had promised her father when he died in 2019 that she would take care of herself. “Right now I feel like I’m breaking it, but I have no option to break it,” she said.

She still has family in the area, and they helped where they could, including with phone bills, but she felt her relationships were fraying and she often didn’t want to see people. Quintana, who chooses her outfits carefully and normally takes care of her appearance, felt sweaty and dirty for weeks.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Tiffany Quintana picks up mail from her aunt’s house in Denver’s Sunnyside neighborhood. June 25, 2020.

These feelings of isolation and shame are part of the cycle of homelessness. And the social networks people turn to in difficult times could soon be pushed to their limits as evictions become possible again.

“Social isolation is a very important factor. Another factor is shame. People are ashamed of being homeless, largely because of all the negative stereotypes and stigma associated with homelessness,” said Don Burnes, Chief of Burnes Institute for Poverty Research at the Colorado Center on Law & Policy.

Even before the pandemic, more than 400,000 Colorado households weren’t making enough money to meet the self-sufficiency standard, including about half of all black and Latino households, a study finds. published by CCLP. (The self-sufficiency standard is a measure of income and basic needs that takes into account more factors than the federal poverty guideline, including housing, health care and transportation.)

A happy ending, for now

In late June, after weeks of struggling to navigate the unemployment bureaucracy, Quintana received a call from a state employee. She learned that potential identity theft had interfered with her jobless claim — and that she could be eligible for thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits now that the issue was resolved.

By then, Quintana had traveled all over town. She had slept in parks and in the Suburban. She had briefly separated from her boyfriend, James Johnson, and spent a few nights at the National Western Center emergency shelter.

Now they were back together and camping in the barely functional SUV outside a friend’s rental on another sweaty day, but they would have to move one more time. They had just spotted the owner taking pictures, and now their friend was about to come out to talk to them.

“I don’t know, maybe we have to put the driveshaft back on and roll slowly through the block,” Quintana said over the phone. “It’s crazy, it’s like you have a good feeling for a while, then, boom, come back down – like, OK, now what?”

The next good news came in the mail, delivered to a relative’s house. The couple rushed to retrieve the envelope and Quintana carefully tore it up.

Tiffany Quintana in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Denver.  June 25, 2020.Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Tiffany Quintana in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Denver. June 25, 2020.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Tiffany Quintana’s boyfriend James hugs her as she reacts to news that she may be on unemployment benefit. They were recently evicted and are sleeping in a truck in Denver’s Sunnyside neighborhood. June 25, 2020.

It wasn’t the benefit card she was hoping for, but it was the paperwork she needed. She chirped in excitement and began to shake, Johnson wrapping his arms around her chest. The end was in sight and within days their first payments really arrived.

The couple rented a motel room and finally signed a lease last week for a new apartment. They move into possessions that have survived their odyssey. A few memories came through; Quintana had been able to save most of her late father’s belongings in the rush to leave their old home.

Quintana is still scared. Rent in Denver is dangerously high, as is the unemployment rate. His benefits will begin to decline within weeks if Congress lets the $600 weekly emergency supplement expire. A few nights last week, she woke up and thought she was at a motel, immediately wondering where they were going next.

“I was traumatized by it,” she said Sunday. But, for now, Quintana has a place to stay – shower, cook, watch TV – and a moment of safety.

“It feels good,” she said. “Those two months felt like years.”

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