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Housing

Denver suburbs look to address homelessness as more camps move south and community tension builds

The cities of Littleton, Englewood and Sheridan passed a homelessness action plan. Residents are regularly calling police to report homelessness.

An unhoused Denver resident walks past his tent in an encampment along the 1300 block of Pearl Street in Denver on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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LITTLETON — Cyclists and joggers along the South Platte River Trail call police on a regular basis these days to report homeless campers. Residents also notify authorities when someone is sleeping on a sidewalk outside a storefront. 

And then, while officers are responding to those reports of unauthorized camping or trespassing, other Littleton residents call the police department to complain that officers are harassing the homeless.

The tension in this suburb is rising as Denver’s homelessness crisis creeps beyond the city and into surrounding towns. There is no homeless shelter in the southern suburbs of Littleton, Sheridan or Englewood, only motel voucher programs and a network of churches that provide warm beds on winter nights. 

There isn’t a day shelter in Littleton where people could get a hot meal, take a shower and sign up for job training or housing vouchers. Instead, the library is adapting to the reality that many of their patrons come to take a nap and wash up in the bathroom. A downtown cafe famous for cinnamon rolls and providing hot food to anyone who can’t afford to pay for their breakfast has become the de-facto place for people to ask for homeless services. 

Littleton, Sheridan and Englewood joined together a few years ago to begin addressing the growing number of camps and confrontations between business owners and people who are homeless. The three cities now have an official homelessness action plan, and last week, leaders from the city of Littleton, the police department, the school district, the library, businesses, churches and nonprofits gathered for a panel discussion on homelessness that drew a crowd of nearly 200.

Tents line the sidewalk next to St. John’s Cathedral in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on May 20, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The goal is to gather the patchwork of grassroots efforts that have sprouted in recent years — from GraceFull Cafe in Littleton and Cafe 180 in Englewood to the faith-based community centers and government programs — and launch a cohesive response to homelessness.   

Their list of needs is decades behind Denver, where there are multiple night shelters, day shelters and one-stop places to sign up for services — and also where tents line sidewalks north and south of downtown and around the Capitol. The city’s Civic Center park, typically filled during daylight hours with folks who are homeless, is now surrounded by fencing while Denver cleans up trash, needles and human waste.

Suburban leaders want after-school programs for the more than 100 Littleton Public Schools students who live in motels or doubled up with other families. A woman on the panel who is homeless asked for a day center where she could warm up and get water and blankets. Littleton police want a second social worker co-responder who accompanies officers to calls involving mental health and, often, people who are homeless. 

The cities’ action plan includes no call to build a homeless shelter, but proposes a “navigation center” where people in need of housing, food and jobs could check in for help. 

A proposal to build a homeless shelter in Littleton would go nowhere, predicted Littleton Police Commander Hal Mandler. “The community would reject it,” he said. “Everyone wants to help homeless people but not right next to them. They want to help the homeless people, but they are nervous when the homeless people are around their house.” 

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One step at a time. 

When the city announced on Facebook recently that an Arapahoe County housing navigator is now available to help folks at the Bemis Public Library on Monday afternoons, the first commenter on the post asked why the city wanted to attract “MORE homeless to the library.” 

“This is why neighborhood kids don’t feel safe,” he wrote.

Police and nonprofit groups in the suburbs said they’ve noticed that when Denver ramps up its cleanups of homeless camps and parks, more homeless folks show up in their towns. The influx leads to an increase in police calls from people who aren’t comfortable seeing homelessness in their neighborhoods, Mandler said. 

“When Denver aggressively starts pushing the homeless out, the homeless people are going to move,” he said. “They are going to go to those immediate cities right outside of Denver and then they’re going to see, ‘Am I going to get hassled by Englewood? Am I going to get hassled by Sheridan? Where can I go where I’m not going to be contacted?’ All they want to do really is be left alone but be close enough to get resources.” 

A tent is seen under the Vasquez Boulevard viaduct in Commerce City on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The difficulty is that the resources in the suburbs are not equipped for the influx, which leads to tension at the library and elsewhere. 

At Bemis Library in Littleton, rules have changed in recent years to decrease the conflicts. Sleeping in the library is no longer against the rules, a switch that occurred after staff realized they were waking up homeless patrons, but not others who dozed off in the library.

“We don’t wake a gentleman in the corner who was reading the newspaper,” said library systems supervisor Rich Allen. “We don’t wake that toddler up. Is this really an equitable policy in our library? Is this discriminatory against some in our community?”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The three cities’ homeless action plan, approved this fall, calls for $705,000 in service upgrades to help the homeless and prevent people from becoming homeless. The document proposes a “proactive” outreach team that would respond to citizen concerns and contact people without homes in order to connect them to services. 

The cities also want to create a regional homlessness office that would set policy, review data and communicate with the public. And they are creating a central point of entry to access local services, called the South Metro Community Foundation. Some at the Littleton event suggested a center similar to The Gathering Place in Denver, a day center for women that links people to food, job training, shelter and housing programs. 

Some seek help at GraceFull Cafe in Littleton or Cafe 180 in Englewood. Giving Heart Englewood, a Christian community center, provides connections to services and “at-risk youth” can find showers, meals and groceries at Movement 5280 in Englewood. 

But the three cities want to tackle homelessness with a more coordinated effort, a central spot that keeps track of need as well as available services, said Mike Sandgren with Change the Trend, a group formed in Englewood in 2017 to brainstorm about how to decrease homelessness and create a network of service providers. In recent years, and especially throughout the pandemic, suburbs have seen more homelessness as people leave Denver, Sandgren said.

“The first-tier suburbs are in the process of trying to identify the right way to respond to the issue as it’s becoming more and more visible, especially in the last year and a half,” he said. 

The timing is critical, too, because state and local governments are determining how to spend federal coronavirus aid, which could go toward housing, mental health and homelessness services. 

A resident’s bike locked up at the Colorado Village Collaborative’s Safe Outdoor Spaces encampment in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver, Co. The site is one of two sanctioned and serviced campsites endorsed by the city to ensure that people experiencing homelessness can stay healthy during the current Coronavirus surge and warm during the winter. (Marc Piscotty / © 2020)

Paula McFadden, who has been homeless on and off in Littleton and participated in the panel discussion, said she has struggled to pull herself out of the situation. A “life event” caused her to lose her home and “everything got taken away,” said McFadden, who for 21 years had a career in a dental office. 

“You don’t know where to turn or where to start once you have lost everything,” she said. 

She understood that Littleton and other suburbs aren’t ready to ask the community to build a shelter. The first layer is a day shelter, perhaps a place to store backpacks and belongings, said McFadden, who spends some of her days in the warmth of the Littleton library. 

“I don’t want money. I just want blankets and food,” she said. “Just kindness. I don’t want to be here. It just happened and I’m here and I’m trying to crawl my way out.” 


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