High-risk unhoused residents plead with Denver City Council after protected space closure


DENVER — Scott Keeney has nowhere else to go.

With high blood pressure, bad lungs and a laundry list of other health issues, Keeney got into housing at the Aloft Hotel in downtown Denver at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keeney previously bounced between shelters and streets, and the City of Denver deemed him and 124 other people experiencing homelessness as “high-risk” at the pandemic’s peak when federal dollars flowed to the city and local charities made greater efforts to ensure immunocompromised, unhoused people received special protections. Most of the high-risk population is older than 65 years old.

The city and The Salvation Army — a Christian charity that operated Aloft Hotel for unhoused residents — planned to return the hotel to its original status when federal funding ran out. 

So far, 37 people have been relocated to other housing. Of the remaining 87 individuals, 30 are eligible for state services and are being matched with housing. The Salvation Army and HOST have matched 38 others with housing options, according to a news release from the Denver Department of Housing Stability (HOST). 

But for the 19 who have no clarity on the future of their housing, a return to the streets or shelters feels detrimental.

I basically have nothing. I’m either going to have to go back to a shelter or out on the streets, and I’m too old to go back on the streets again, so I need some kind of housing,” Keeney said in a public comment to Denver City Council at its Tuesday meeting. “We’ve all got health issues and everything else.”

John Waldo Paul McClaugherty, a 67-year-old Aloft resident, said what little money he has saved for retirement cannot cover even the cheapest of Denver apartments. Food stamps and cost-of-living vouchers also serve little-to-no purpose in a teetering economy.

“We’re all on small retirement stuff and we can’t afford to even rent a place here,” Waldo Paul McClaugherty said. “Please help me and all my neighbors so they have a decent place to live while we wait to get into permanent housing.”

Aloft, located at 800 15th Street, has traditionally served as a hotel for those attending the Colorado Convention Center, located just one block away. One Denver resident thanked City Council for returning it to its intended purpose at the Tuesday meeting, claiming the hotel is vital to the state’s economy.

But those who see no place to live in their future said a “thriving economy” hasn’t trickled down to them.

“With the housing situation and not having a place to stay, not knowing where I’m gonna go, it’s really exhausting,” said Eldridge Mangum Junior, an Aloft resident. “I am in dire need of housing.”

Others leaving Aloft said hotel rooms are vital for those with medical conditions, as crowded, uncomfortable shelter beds make dealing with excruciating pain even more harrowing. Living on the streets feels even less humane for many who spoke to the city council.

“We do not have somewhere to live with dignity,” said Alberto, who did not give his last name and spoke through an English-Spanish translator. “This past April, I had an aneurism and I do not have a place to live where I can properly take care of myself.”

Alison Berg is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at alisonberg@rmpbs.org.