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Homelessness in Denver is obvious, but the never-ending work to solve it is harder to see

It could take months to find someone housing. And in that time, hundreds more who are newly homeless or new to Denver have arrived.

Nate Werner, 41, waits for a bus to the 48th Avenue Denver Rescue Mission Center at the National Western Complex shelter on August 6, 2020. After months of serving up to 760 men during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the shelter was winding down operations and residents were slowly moving to other shelters. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
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The hundreds of green cots that lined the vast hall at the National Western Complex are gone, and the men who slept there have been bused to homeless shelters around the city. 

In small groups, they gathered their belongings into duffle bags last week and waited — socially distanced on metal folding chairs — for a van ride to sleep somewhere else, the latest shuffle of the city’s homeless population. The coronavirus-era shelter at National Western was temporary, and now the space in far north Denver will resume hosting gem and auto shows. 

Meanwhile downtown, authorities have swept two large encampments in recent weeks — one in front of the Capitol where tents once numbered close to 200 and the other an 80-tent town surrounding Morey Middle School. Another sweep is planned for Monday near the Denver Art Museum, a camp that has grown since people sleeping a few blocks away in Lincoln Park were pushed out. 

As city crews have cleaned out camps, using shovels and garbage trucks to pick up tents, coolers and other possessions, more tents have popped up in other parts of Capitol Hill and northeast of downtown in Park Hill. 

It’s a relocation of tents, a shifting of people who are homeless during the pandemic from one bed to another, a strategy that Denver Homeless Out Loud organizer Terese Howard calls a game of “whack-a-mole.” And it’s pushing homeless advocates, the business community and residents of multiple Denver neighborhoods to ask for deeper solutions to homelessness.

The sweeps are continuing as city officials discuss opening “safe outdoor spaces” — regulated tent cities with hand-washing stations and bathrooms. The city’s first proposed spot, the parking lot of the city-owned Denver Coliseum, is now on hold while the City Council comes up with other options.

The city’s homelessness problem is now conspicuous — encampments that include couches and barbecue grills, and long lines for lunch at the back doors of churches. The gritty, one-person-at-a-time work to find solutions is less obvious, though. 

Allen Frey, 46, waits near the intake desk at the National Western Complex on August 6, 2020. Frey was working with a traveling carnival and was injured, stranding him in Missouri before he made his way to Denver. He entered a multiple-step program with the Denver Rescue Mission in an attempt to get back home to Michigan. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

According to the city’s count, outreach workers helped more than two dozen people who were camping around Morey Middle School find housing or hotels before crews swept the camp last week.  

One woman living in the camp was able to move into an apartment. Five folks were reunited with family members, thanks to help from outreach workers. A couple of people were signed up for the city’s social impact bond program, an initiative funded by public and private dollars that moves people off the streets and into apartments where they can get mental health care and substance abuse treatment. And 19 were placed in hotel rooms because they are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus or had tested positive for the infection. 

The work has no endpoint, though.

“People tend to think that homelessness is a finite number, and it’s not,” said Tracy Brooks, senior director of emergency services for the Denver Rescue Mission. “It’s not like we have 100 homeless people today and if we get all them housed, then we are done having homelessness.” 

Tracy Brooks, senior director of emergency services for the Denver Rescue Mission, at the National Western Complex shelter on August 6, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

More than 1,000 men who slept at the National Western shelter between April and last week had never before accessed homeless services in Denver — meaning either they were newly homeless or moved to Denver from somewhere else. And based on surveys from the last two years, nearly half of men who slept at the Denver Rescue Mission’s shelter near downtown had never been homeless before. 

“For everybody that we move out, there is unfortunately someone else coming in,” Brooks said.

Priced out, and dropped off

Joseph Padilla, 47, is among Denver’s newly homeless. 

Padilla was sharing a house off Federal Boulevard in southwest Denver with his mom, sister, girlfriend and three kids until they could no longer pool enough money to pay the rent — which jumped to $2,500 from $1,100 this spring after new owners bought the house, he said.

The family was evicted. Sheriff’s deputies showed up at the door, Padilla said. 

The cot where Joseph Padilla, 47, has been sleeping at the National Western Complex shelter. Padilla said his family was evicted from their southwest Denver home in March after new owners raised the rent from $1,100 to $2,500 at the beginning of the year. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Everyone else found other housing, mostly by moving in with relatives. Padilla’s girlfriend and the kids moved in with her parents. But Padilla ended up at the National Western Complex, where he has lived since April. He slept on one of the green cots, with a white sheet and blanket, and a black lock box nearby to keep his belongings. 

During the day, he visited his kids and met with staff from the Denver Rescue Mission to get signed up for housing programs. 

“I’m on a lot of waiting lists,” Padilla said.

MORE: Homeless camps in downtown Denver are “out of control” as the pandemic drags on. So what’s the solution?

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Allen Frey, 46, is also new to homelessness, and new to Denver. Frey, who arrived in Colorado last week and ended up at the National Western because he had nowhere to sleep, had been working for a traveling carnival when he was injured in an accident. Three of his ribs were cracked. 

He took a 36-hour bus ride to Denver from Missouri. “They dropped me off at a bus station and said, ‘Find your way home,’” said Frey, who is from Michigan but took a job on the road after getting divorced. 

“I’ve never been in this situation,” he said as he filled out paperwork for a Denver Rescue Mission program to find work and housing. “I volunteered for a homeless shelter all winter long for the last 10 years and now here I am.” 

Invisible outreach

Denver officials said last week they would spend $11.9 million of the city’s $127 million in federal coronavirus relief funds on homelessness. The money will go toward increasing shelter capacity and medical care for those living on the streets and in shelters and cars, and for hotel rooms for those who test positive for coronavirus or who are at high-risk of dying should they contract COVID-19.

At the same time, city officials still are reviewing potential sites for “safe outdoor spaces,” where people who do not want to live in the close quarters of a shelter during the pandemic could pitch a tent without fear of an early-morning sweep. “The Denver Coliseum site is on the back burner as we examine other potential sites,” said Derek Woodbury, communications director for the city’s Department of Housing Stability. 

The Coliseum parking lot is not off the table, he said, as the city looks for three camping sites, with room for about 60 people each. The city swept the camps before the “safe outdoor spaces” were ready because the cleanup couldn’t wait, Woodbury said, noting that city policy is to clean up the camps “when there are significant public health, public safety or other major risks.” 

Outreach work, some of it funded by the city and carried out by various nonprofits, has been ongoing throughout the pandemic.

In the days before each camp sweep, outreach workers from numerous organizations — including the Coalition for the Homeless and St. Francis Center — were walking the camps to help people who qualified get into hotel rooms or more permanent housing. 

At the National Western, just past the entrance with metal detectors and a temperature check, a long table was staffed by intake workers and case managers from the Denver Rescue Mission. Men staying at the shelter could enroll in a program called “Next Step,” a step-by-step plan intended to get them set up for a job and permanent housing. 

Destine Green, 22, works the intake desk for the Denver Rescue Mission at the National Western Complex Hall of Education on August 6, 2020. Green has been working for the mission for five months, through the worst of the coronavirus. “It’s been up and down, but for the most part positive,” he said. “It’s been great to get people resources right away.” (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The steps include getting a driver’s license or ID, enrolling in Medicaid, signing up for benefits and dealing with legal matters — including past evictions — that could prevent people from renting a place to live. Case managers help make phone calls and fill out government forms. 

The work is tedious. 

“It’s kind of an unrealistic goal to go straight to housing in 50 days,” said Dani Murdock, a case manager for the program. Just getting a birth certificate can sometimes take six months, if the person wasn’t born in the United States, she said. “It really depends on the person’s motivation as well as their circumstances.”

Before the National Western was cleared of its cots, outreach workers from numerous nonprofits came every day for a week to try to connect the men living there to various programs — everything from assisted living to the Salvation Army to the dorm-like housing at Fort Lyon, a former Army fort in Las Animas.

In some ways, the coordination that took place at the National Western was the best-case scenario, said Jerred Powell with the Denver Department of Housing Stability. Outreach workers, shelter operators, medical staff from the Stout Street Clinic and employment agency Bayoud Enterprises were all in the same giant room for four months.

“This is something that I’ve wanted to see for so long,” Powell said. “I hate that it’s this circumstance that brought us to this point, but it’s so cool to see how quickly all these organizations leaned into this new world of coordination and cooperation.”

Fewer shelter beds available after coronavirus 

Nate Werner, 41, took a cot at the National Western Complex back in April and stayed until last week. While he was there, two men died — one from a suspected overdose and the other in a stabbing — and Werner contracted the coronavirus.

He had been living at the Denver Rescue Mission’s shelter on 48th Avenue Center, just north of Interstate 70, until that shelter was shut down because of the pandemic. It was one of three Denver Rescue Mission shelters for men that closed as the city and the nonprofit made plans to house the homeless at the National Western and the Denver Coliseum, giant spaces that could accommodate social distancing and help protect people from the highly contagious virus.

Nate Werner, 41, describes his time at the National Western Complex shelter on August 6, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

As he waited inside the expo hall for a van ride to 48th Avenue, Werner said he was ready to leave the cavernous facility, which had quickly developed its own rhythm. Men who stayed there got three meals each day and could use a laundry service from the nonprofit employment agency Bayaud Enterprises. What is in normal times a steakhouse restaurant was turned into the Stout Street Clinic, an outpost of the medical clinic run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. An intercom announcement notified the men that “the smoke pit is now open,” so they could resume smoking cigarettes outside after the area had been closed for a regular cleaning.  

While some men were lined up to leave one afternoon last week, others were sleeping on their cots.

“It’s very stressful. You’ve got like 800 people clashing, saying ‘You’re in my way, he’s in my space,’” Werner said. 

The shelter at National Western had beds for 760 men, and many more than that stayed there for at least one night since it opened in April. The Coliseum had room for 300 women, who were moved to various shelters about two weeks ago. The Coliseum is now housing men, who make up a larger percentage of the homeless population. 

About 260 men were moved from the National Western to the Denver Rescue Mission’s 48th Avenue shelter, and about 100 went to the mission’s Holly Center, a shelter just south of Interstate 70.

The capacity of all three shelters for men — the Coliseum, Holly Center and the 48th Avenue shelter — is 660 beds. That’s 100 fewer than the National Western could hold, though the National Western has not been full for weeks. The capacity of the three shelters is also 300 short of the Denver Rescue Mission’s regular capacity before the coronavirus pandemic. In normal times, the Denver Rescue Mission can house 999 men each night. 

Signs on a hand sanitizer station near the cafeteria area of the National Western Complex homeless shelter on August 6, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The mission’s most well-known shelter, on Lawrence Street just north of downtown’s skyscrapers and with a large neon “Jesus Saves” sign, is undergoing a remodel to become disability compliant. When it reopens in December, the round-the-clock shelter should have space for 200 men.

Werner has been homeless since 1998, first spending years living in the woods in Alaska working as a guide and now living in streets and shelters in Denver, he said. “Alcoholism got in my way,” he explained. He’d rather sleep indoors nowadays because outside, police officers kept asking him to pick up his things and move. 

120 people who are homeless had coronavirus

The Denver City Council’s homelessness committee is scheduled to meet to hear the latest on the problem Wednesday. Mayor Michael Hancock said recently that the city is trying to find “the very complicated opportunity for balance” as it manages public safety and homelessness during a pandemic. 

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
  • TESTINGHere’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
  • VACCINE HOTLINE: Get up-to-date information.

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Denver has had an overnight camping ban for eight years. But the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that cities allow outdoor camping to reduce the spread of coronavirus in homeless shelters. 

The mayor took a hard stance against the encampments, which before the recent sweeps had grown larger and more persistent as the pandemic dragged on and the city had seemed to relax its enforcement of the camping ban. 

“We have to not only take care of and protect those who are in the encampment but we have to protect and keep safe the general public,” Hancock said. “It’s unfortunate that people want to politicize this, but we are pursuing public health and safety for everyone in and around these encampments. And we are not going to compromise on that. 

“We cannot allow for these encampments to persist in our city. Period,” he said.

Colorado public health officials have tracked the number of coronavirus cases among the homeless population, and have offered free testing in the shelters and encampments. The state health department counts 120 people who are homeless — whether in a shelter or living outside — who have had COVID-19. 

There were 33 confirmed and suspected cases among staff at the National Western over the last few months, according to the state health department. A New Genesis transitional shelter in Denver had 38 cases among residents and three among staff. And Urban Peak, a shelter for youth, had 13 cases among residents.

Janell Martinez, center, and Desiree, right, with Bayaud Enterprises, talk to a resident who was picking up his laundry on August 6, 2020. Bayaud’s mobile laundry trucks processed 30 bags of laundry per day while the National Western shelter was operating. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

At the National Western, nurses from Denver Public Health were testing up to 200 people per day. Coalition for the Homeless medical staff screened everyone who entered the shetler. Those with positive results were sent to hotel rooms to isolate for two weeks, an example of behind-the-scenes work to protect those who are homeless from the virus. 

Powell, from the city’s Department of Housing Stability, worked at the National Western nearly every day for the last four months. What most people can’t see, he said, are the dozens of volunteers and staff working in the medical clinic, serving food, and signing up shelter residents for housing and treatment programs. 

“I see people’s frustration, and I understand it,” he said. “My hope is that this is really going to benefit us long term as far as what we can do as a community together.”


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