The tents are beside an icy creek, down a snowy ravine on the other side of the railroad tracks.
They’re beyond a sign that warns no one to cross, and past a wire fence that’s bent out of shape in multiple places by all the people who have stretched it to duck through. When the W-Line light rail train rounds the bend, it’s hardly audible above the biting November wind.
Sheridan Station, the RTD train station near West Colfax Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard, has for years been a popular spot for homeless campers. The ravine where they set up their tents is fenced on both sides to prevent people from entering, shrouded by a few creekside trees, and just far enough from the train platform that commuters don’t see much.
It’s a tough spot to access even for Alton Reynolds, a former city bus driver and counselor who is the Regional Transportation District’s first homeless outreach coordinator. Still, Reynolds has entered the ravine multiple times, offering connections to shelters, housing programs and mental health support, and usually with a few RTD police officers.
He’s also “played frogger” across the tracks to reach a couple of people camped on a slice of dirt between the light rail tracks and freight train tracks along the C and D lines. And he helped organize an A-Line cleanup of an encampment junkyard, where people were living in the shell of an abandoned Ford Explorer and VW bus, both draped with tarps and connected to tents.
For now, Reynolds is a one-man operation, striking up conversations in eight counties with people camping at train stations or sleeping on buses and trains beyond the end of the route, when passengers are required to exit. He is an employee of Jefferson Center, the community mental health center for Jefferson County, which applied to host the RTD grant-funded position.
In a booming voice, he announces his presence far before he reaches the door of a tent or a person sleeping on the ground.
“My voice carries across the entire Union Station, I know that already,” said Alton, who for six years drove RTD buses, including the notorious No. 15 along Colfax Avenue. “I can get their attention from a long ways away. It’s a good way for me to disarm a person.”
Reynolds makes clear from the start that he’s not a cop. He’s an outreach worker, he tells them, here to find out what they might need.
“Tell me your story, and I’ll try to help,” he tells them. Reynolds can direct people to a homeless shelter, a hot meal or a needle-exchange program, or enter their contact information into the state’s housing prioritization database, which links people to housing programs based on their level of immediate need. He can also call in the crisis team at Jefferson Center for a mobile mental health assessment.
Reynolds doesn’t push — it’s more about listening. A person who has piles of food but is asking for more might need a mental health assessment instead of more food, for example. Someone who is openly using drugs gets contact information for the Harm Reduction Action Center. “Tell them Alton sent you,” he says.
He offers a step toward a new path, nothing too overwhelming. “That’s a better start than where you’re at at this point,” he said.
Multiple times a day, Reynolds explains to people that there’s no camping allowed on RTD property, even though it’s a public space, and that he hopes he doesn’t see them camped next to the tracks or behind the elevators when he returns.
RTD’s “old philosophy” was “we’re just a transportation company”
Public transportation systems for years have tried to find the right balance between compassion for those who are riding buses and trains to stay warm, or sleeping in stations because they don’t have a home, and commuters’ expectations that they feel comfortable and safe on their way to work.
Long before the COVID pandemic pushed homelessness on public sidewalks and train stations to new levels, Steven Martingano, deputy chief of RTD’s police force, realized the transit system should partner with the local mental health center.
Martingano noticed about five years ago that many people caught up in RTD’s suspension program — which bans people from RTD property anywhere from 30 days to life, depending on the crime — had mental health issues. Their therapists at Denver’s community mental health center appealed to RTD on their behalf, saying that without access to a bus or train, their patients could not pick up their medication or make appointments.
As a trial partnership, a mental health counselor from WellPower, Denver’s community mental health center, accompanied RTD police officers. Within a week, Martingano said, it was obvious RTD needed a co-responder program.
“Automatically, they were like, ‘Hey, we really need to do this almost every day with RTD,’” recalled Martingano, who previously was a police officer in New York City, Arvada and Denver. “They were meeting a lot of clients that were lost in the system. And a lot of the issues that the people were being charged with were disorderly conduct or hindering public transportation, but a lot of them were really medical. Someone just starts screaming on the bus, and the bus driver pulls over — that’s really a medical condition.”
The following year, in 2019, RTD budgeted for four mental health co-responders.
Those clinicians ended up reconnecting with patients the mental health center had lost contact with and making hundreds of new appointments. Almost 30% of people offered mental health treatment were willing to participate.
Clinicians also discovered that most of the people they were meeting at the stations — nearly 70%, according to WellPower data — were homeless.
That statistic, and the effects of post-pandemic homelessness on the public transit system, inspired RTD to seek a federal grant, which covers Reynold’s salary as the organization’s first homelessness case manager.
“The old philosophy used to be that we’re a transportation company,” Martingano said. “We just need to get people from A to Z. But once they leave our system, our property, that’s no longer RTD’s issue.”
One of the biggest COVID-era effects on RTD came after the city worked with nonprofits to open two massive shelters at the National Western Complex after homeless shelters in downtown Denver closed. The shift meant hundreds of new riders were riding buses to north Denver.
“If we didn’t start building these partnerships, we would have never been prepared for how to handle that,” Martingano said. “Now we’re sitting at the table with all these metro agencies so that we can assist in whatever capacity that we’re able to.”
“All about survival”
Malcolm Moore’s tent is by itself at the back of a dirt lot, across the street from the A-Line. He’s had the RTD property in north Denver’s industrial district to himself since February, except for the semitrucks that sometimes roll in for the night.
Moore, who was making spaghetti on a tiny camping stove on a recent afternoon, hasn’t been asked to move because he isn’t in anyone’s way, isn’t using drugs and is far enough away from the tracks that it’s not a safety concern, Reynolds said. He hops on the light-rail train at East 40th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard to pick up his Amazon orders and other mail downtown, and sometimes, just to warm up.
Reynolds, though, is trying to help him find housing. Moore moved to the vacant lot in a snowstorm last winter after he contracted COVID while living in a rooftop encampment about a block away. He hadn’t tried looking for housing until Reynolds offered to help a few weeks ago.
“Up until then, I have been all about survival,” said Moore, who lost his apartment in Denver in 2016 after the manager kept upping the rent.
Moore, 47, has a solar-powered generator that runs his laptop, which he’s using to start a blog and podcast about homelessness. He set up motion-sensored lights in the dirt next to his tent, his “security system” to warn him if anyone creeps up on him in the night. When they go off, he shouts to scare intruders away.
When he was sick with COVID, his legs too lethargic to move, Reynolds posted his location online and asked for help. A kind woman appeared with bags of Advil, soup and Gatorade, and, Moore said, saved his life.
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It’s hard to live so isolated, but Moore prefers it to the chaos that, until a recent cleanup, was just across the street.
The encampment along the A-Line, anchored by abandoned vehicles and up against a chain-link fence along the tracks, was packed with people all day and night, Moore said. Ahead of a city cleanup a few weeks ago, Reynolds encouraged residents of the camp to move out on their own, salvaging the belongings they wanted to keep. He also offered connections to shelters and housing programs.
“Let’s work together to get all the dangerous items, the needles, the trash, the propane tanks out from over here so everybody can be safe,” Reynolds said he told the campers. “And by working with them and being honest about it … we were able to pick up the area.”
The encampment was in full view of riders of the A-Line train, including those just landing at Denver International Airport. It generated quite a number of calls to RTD’s customer comment hotline.
“You have visitors coming into town or even our normal commuters looking over here going, ‘Hey, what’s going on over here? This looks like a significant town, not just an encampment, but a town being built,’” Reynolds said.
RTD drivers get training, buses get mental health brochures
The point of the homeless navigator isn’t just to move campers away from the tracks so they can set up camp somewhere else, said Taylor Clepper, director of navigation and housing services at Jefferson Center.
“What does that actually solve?” Clapper asked. “How do we get them to that next step on the path? How do we meet them where they’re at?”
The mental health center applied to RTD to host the homeless navigator because the position filled a gap that was keeping people from crucial services, Clepper said. The navigator acts as a connector — linking people at bus and train stations to mental health centers across the metro area.
And it makes sense for the navigator to cover the whole RTD region, Clepper said, because people who camp at stations are often moving anywhere RTD goes, from Boulder to Douglas County. Wherever they land, Reynolds can help get them into the right services, and coordinate services throughout several jurisdictions.
“How this actually helps human beings is we’re able to better connect those dots and connect them with resources that are a good fit for what they’re actually going through,” Clepper said.
The Denver mental health center, WellPower, now has more than 30 clinicians working in co-responder programs, starting with the Denver Police Department in 2016 and expanding to other agencies, including the Auraria college campus and the four positions with RTD.
Co-responders on the streets with law enforcement are the “eyes and ears of what is happening in the moment while someone is in crisis,” said Sam Rabins, manager of the Denver mental health center co-responder program. “Case managers can’t be with their entire caseload at every moment. We’re able to really see that person in the moment and say, ‘What do you need?’ and then have direct contact with their care team so that that person now gets their needs met.”
One man who was contacted by RTD police about eight times a day for nearly two years is off the streets and in housing, thanks to co-responders who helped get him into services, Rabins said.
“We just need to make public transportation equitable for all people that are utilizing it,” she said. “And if that means that the person who rides a train for warmth continues to do so and has supportive services outside of it, to me, that means we’ve done our job.”
Along with the co-responder program, RTD is training its drivers about mental health response and placing brochures on trains and buses that list services available throughout the metro region. Another idea that’s been discussed is playing informational videos at RTD stations or inside buses and trains that would educate people about where to get help for mental health or substance use.
“RTD is saying let’s train our bus drivers to be more educated and less like, ‘Oh, someone that’s talking to themselves just got on the bus, and all of a sudden, I need to radio up because I don’t know what to do,’” said Chris Richardson, a co-responder and associate director of criminal justice services for the Denver mental health center.
“It really is, how do you connect with someone on a very humanistic personal level that is not, ‘I’m afraid of you or I’m concerned about what you’re going to say.’ You’re taking off the barriers that allow people to feel like you’re in it with them, and you’re willing to help get them to that next step.”
While most of us were quarantined, people without homes were on buses
Eleven months into his job, Reynolds has had a front-row seat to the post-pandemic conflict between people without homes and business commuters. People complain about the encampments in light-rail stations. Other people complain when he forces campers to pack up and move along. Workers on the train complain that it’s too smelly or unsafe to ride.
“Many of us quarantined ourselves. We stayed inside our homes. We locked our doors. We didn’t go out,” he said. “Well, after that quarantine was lifted, I go up to my station and start to decide, ‘Hey, I want to go downtown.’ Well, during that whole quarantine, they didn’t have a house to go to so they were already on the buses and trains at that point, and the more you get to be on that train and bus without anybody bothering you, guess what, I’m gonna get on it more often.”
Reynolds’ work as a bus driver prepared him well to handle both sides. He recalled one Saturday when a woman “with a significant body odor” boarded his bus. Passengers were complaining, some loudly. The woman was getting agitated. Then she peed in her seat.
Reynolds asked the woman to sit near him and kept telling her, “It’s OK. I got you and I’m going to get you where you need to go.”
He also made an “airline announcement,” something like, “Please feel free to go ahead and drop the windows down. Please bear with us and we’ll get to our destination as soon as possible.”
Reynolds contacted his supervisor, who dispatched another bus to his location. Then while Reynolds’ passengers got on the new bus, full of fresh air, he chauffeured the woman off route to a homeless shelter downtown.
Most days, he wished he could do more to help people by offering something besides a ride, which is why he applied for his current job.
“It’s an opportunity to connect all the dots that I’ve done in my life — a counselor, a bus operator and a person concerned about others.”