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'They're like angels': How a care center in Denver helps unhoused people heal

Ed Clair is recovering at a new care program in Colorado for people who are unhoused that have complex medical needs. (Courtesy of Miriah Nunnaley)
Ed Clair is recovering at a new care program in Colorado for people who are unhoused that have complex medical needs. (Courtesy of Miriah Nunnaley)

Denver’s new Mayor Mike Johnston used his first full day on the job last week to declare an emergency in the city over homelessness.

“It is a human rights challenge because we know we have people right now who are living and dying on the streets of Denver,” he said. “We know we have people who need access to support and services and can’t get them. We know it is a public health challenge. We know it is an economic development challenge.”

Johnston promised to get 1,000 people housed by the end of the year.

The number of unhoused people in the Denver metro area increased 31% in the last year. And the move follows similar state and local emergencies declared this year in Oregon and Los Angeles County.

Ed Clair is one of many experiencing homelessness in Denver. He says he lost his apartment about two years ago during the pandemic.

“I was working for a janitorial company and that kind of fell apart,” he says. “I lost my job, wasn’t able to pay rent or anything, lost my apartment and had no choice but to move onto the streets.”

Life on the streets can be dangerous. Clair knows this all too well, as he recovers from a winter hospital stay for frostbite.

“The weather got way cold, like 40 below, and I was out wandering around in wet shoes and my feet froze,” he said. “They were completely black from before my toes all the way to the back of my foot and pretty much the bottoms of them froze solid.”

Clair needed both of his feet amputated. As he was preparing to be discharged from the hospital, he told doctors he didn’t have anywhere to go.

That’s how he ended up at a new care center from the nonprofit Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. It launched in February and provides patients who don’t have a home somewhere to heal after a hospital stay.

Clair has been there for five months. He’s sober now, and leading recovery groups.

And as he works through physical therapy, he says the center is helping connect him with social security and a new apartment.

“These people rock,” he says. “They’re like angels.”

One of those “angels” is a registered nurse named Miriah Nunnaley, the coalition’s director of recuperative care. She says the new center fills a gap in Denver’s system for individuals after they have been discharged from hospital who are too sick or frail to be in shelters or on the streets.

“The common theme is they are unhoused and they have some sort of acute medical need,” Nunnaley says. “We see folks like Ed that get frostbite and have amputations that need to learn how to use wheelchairs or get fitted for prosthetics. We see people that are recovering from a heart attack or some sort of internal surgery. We see folks that need support just getting on a medication regimen so they don’t continue hospitalizing and using more costly resources.”

There are other programs like this around the country, but Nunnaley says this one is unique because there are few that provide 24/7 clinical care.

“So we have nurses that we try to schedule around the clock,” she says. “We have medical assistants, we provide primary care. We also have behavioral health technicians that provide some kind of psychosocial support 24/7 as well.”

The average length of stay is around two weeks right now, she says, and that gives providers enough time to engage patients and get them looped into support services. But some people stay up to four months.

“We have someone on chemo, for example, right now with us, so that’s gonna be a longer stay,” Nunnaley says.

The program isn’t able to bill for room, board or other wraparound care, Nunnaley says, so partnerships with local hospital systems often fund care.

“I’m hoping they’re learning the benefit of their investment and, over time, will increase their investment,” she says. “I think our program not only helps people, but really there’s demonstrated cost savings to the healthcare systems as well.”

However, a nursing shortage has proved challenging for the center, something felt throughout other medical settings. Nunnaley says she’s trying to get folks interested in the program because the lack of staffing has made it difficult to plan 24/7 care.

Despite the hardships, the wins keep her going — the stories she can tell where they have helped someone is her reward.

“Ed’s a great example. He’s gonna get into housing. He’s been sober, he’s leading recovery meetings in our program,” Nunnaley says. “We have another gentleman we were able to unify with his family in Florida that had been in and out of the hospital. We are able to help women … that experience domestic violence or trafficking and help get them out of a situation and looped into resources. And even if we can’t get someone into housing, I know that my team is doing everything they can to ensure that we’re getting people access to as many resources as possible.”

Nunnaley looks forward to seeing the details as far as funding and plans, but she welcomes the new homeless emergency declaration in Denver as a great first step because the challenge affects everyone.

“We are only as healthy as all of the community around us, and so everyone has to be invested in this problem,” she says. “I just think with some individuals that are looking at this problem through a lens of empathy and collaboration, we will be able to do great things in Denver.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Locke also adapted it for the web.

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