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Jay, who spent more than a year living on Denver streets in a tent, is framed by the door of his tent set up on Colfax Avenue between Lincoln Street and Broadway with the Colorado State Capitol in the background on February 22, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Denver’s five-year plan to reduce by half the number of people who are homeless and living outdoors relies on a relatively new strategy — buying up old motels and converting them into housing. 

The city, through partnerships with nonprofits and thanks to federal coronavirus aid, has helped support the purchase of three motels in recent weeks, two along the city’s historic east-west artery Colfax Avenue and the other north of downtown. Other similar deals are in the works.

While the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless purchased a motel in northeast Denver in 2019, it was the pandemic in 2020 that pushed city leaders and nonprofits to focus on buying old motels as a long-term strategy to get people into housing. That spring, as shelters shut down and sleeping head to toe in crowded rooms was deemed risky, the city and several nonprofits provided thousands of temporary motel rooms for people who had COVID or were at higher risk of negative effects from the virus. 

Now, some of the motel rooms that served as an emergency response during the pandemic will play a significant role in the city’s plan of coming up with 900 supportive housing units.

Denver City Council earlier this month approved a $983,456 contract with the nonprofit The Fax, which recently bought The Westerner and Sand & Sage motels, neighboring properties on East Colfax. The plan is that beginning next fall, after a basic remodel, Volunteers of America of Colorado will lease both properties and operate a family shelter called Theodora Family Motel.

The motels will have a combined 36 units, each with a refrigerator and microwave.

Then in 2028, The Fax will redevelop the two motels into affordable apartments. 

The city used funds from the federal American Rescue Plan to support the project, which in the near term will provide shelter for homeless families and veterans while a family shelter on West Colfax undergoes a remodel.

The news followed a September announcement that the city would spend $5 million in federal coronavirus aid to support the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless’ purchase of a former La Quinta Inn. 

That hotel, near Interstate 25 and a few blocks north of Coors Field along Park Avenue West, has been used by the coalition since April 2020 to provide 103 rooms for people who were living outside with COVID or had pre-existing health conditions, including pregnancy, that made them at high risk for complications with the virus. 

Insulated tents at a city-sanctioned “safe outdoor space,” or SOS, in Denver on July 14. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The former La Quinta — now called the Park Avenue Inn — will continue operating as a shelter through at least 2024. The long-term vision, though, is to redevelop the building into about 200 units of supportive housing, which includes access to mental health and substance use counseling, job training and other services. The coalition purchased the hotel about a year ago, using bridge financing that its new contract with the city will help it pay back. 

The homeless coalition’s executive director, John Parvensky, called motels a “lifeline” for the homeless during the pandemic. Now, as the pandemic winds down, that emergency use is transforming into long-term solutions to the crisis, he said. 

Next up in the homeless coalition’s motel acquisitions is the Clarion Inn, at the junction of Interstate 25 and Interstate 70 in north Denver. The nine-story building has 215 rooms and a banquet hall, which Parvensky views as an ideal spot to transition people out of tent encampments and into longer-term housing. 

Parvensky, who is retiring after 37 years at the coalition, said the pandemic exacerbated the homelessness crisis in the city — but also brought much-needed federal dollars that led to creative ways to produce housing. “I’m trying to find more of those types of opportunities while the money is available, and lock in those gains for the long run,” he said.  

But even before COVID, the coalition was eyeing motels as part of its long-term strategy. It purchased a former Quality Inn in northeast Denver, near Interstate 70 and Quebec Street, in 2019. The remodeled property opened in January 2020 as Fusion Studios, with 139 units, most of which are supportive housing that comes with access to health care and therapy. 

Another city-funded motel-to-housing project is in the works, though progressing slowly.

Last year, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette announced plans to spend $2 million in federal money to buy the Stay Inn, just south of Interstate 70 in northeast Denver. The long-term plan is to turn the 94-room hotel into supportive housing units, but the project still has not been finalized. 

The city’s five-year plan, from 2022-26, calls for creating 7,000 affordable homes, either through ownership or rental properties. Of those, the city’s housing stability office wants 900 supportive housing units, which are units that come with on-site support that helps people stay housed. The plan also includes a goal of reducing eviction filings by 25% and decreasing “unsheltered homlessness” by 50%. 

The mayor’s budget includes more than $77 million in federal funding for homelessness this year, support for various housing projects “to a degree that could not have been contemplated in the early 2000s,” said Britta Fisher, who heads the city’s Department of Housing Stability. The increased visibility of homelessness in the city, along with residents’ concerns about rising home prices, have made it easier to persuade officials and the community at large to support new ways to tackle the homelessness problem, Fisher said.

“There is a lot of shared pain for folks who are feeling the pinch of affordability,” she said. “They are worried about where their kids and their grandkids will live and whether they can stay in Denver. It is that shared pain that has been felt by so many that has thrust this to a shared concern.

“I don’t have to explain it. They see it and they feel it.” 

The spring of 2020 brought a “dramatic and rapid shift” in how the city had to provide housing for the homeless, Fisher said, and city officials, like others around the country, “quickly looked to our empty motels.” 

Denver contracted with six motels to provide emergency housing during the pandemic. The city so far has contracted to spend about $40 million with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and $25.8 million with the Salvation Army, two nonprofits that have been placing people in motel rooms since the COVID pandemic began. The funds pay for motel leasing and staffing. 

The city also funds health, counseling and other services for residents at several former motels that are now used as temporary shelters or affordable housing. 

That includes Fusion Studios, the homeless coalition’s studio apartment building that was once a Quality Inn, and the Volunteers of America Family Motel on West Colfax, which was purchased about 20 years by the VOA and converted into a family shelter. It has served as temporary housing for families and veterans while they apply for longer-term housing programs. 

The city is also leasing the Aloft hotel in downtown Denver to provide rooms for people who are homeless and have COVID or are at high risk of complications if they develop the virus. And it leases a former hotel now operated by the Denver Housing Authority as short-term shelter space, as well as contracts with U.S. Motels North Denver for rooms at two north Denver motels. 

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...