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Seventeen teams of city workers and employees from local nonprofits in the Denver metro area visited highway overpasses, alleys, public parks, transit terminals, parking lots, and other locations to count houseless individuals in late January 2022. The “point-in-time” count can help inform human service organizations and government programs of origins of local homelessness and how to better serve affected individuals. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

As Colorado braced for a 50-degree temperature drop Wednesday night, community leaders and nonprofits were offering rides, passing out shiny-silver mylar blankets and opening emergency overnight shelters to protect people living outdoors from the bitter-cold snap.

In Denver, the work was made even more intense by the arrival of 1,321 migrants to the city within the past 12 days, people riding buses from the southern border apparently seeking asylum in the United States. Hundreds of the migrants, which included 175 who arrived overnight Monday, are staying in city recreation centers set up in the past two weeks as emergency shelters. 

Now, as the temperature in the city is expected to dip to minus 10 on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, city officials announced plans to open up the Denver Coliseum as a 24-hour warming center Wednesday afternoon. The Coliseum, north of downtown, can hold 225 people.

Buses were scheduled to begin taking people from the Lawrence Street Community Center downtown to the Coliseum on Wednesday afternoon. Only registered service animals are allowed to stay, city officials said. People who come to the Coliseum with a pet that is not a service animal can give the pet to animal control officials who will be standing by to set up temporary housing at the Denver Animal Shelter.

Denver officials said that even before the cold weather, 470 migrants were sleeping at emergency shelters set up by the city. Almost 200 others were staying at other shelters in the area. This is in addition to the 6,888 people who are living outdoors and in shelters in the seven-county Denver metro area, according to the latest count. 

The influx of migrants from South and Central America is stretching city resources, including staff. Denver has an “urgent need” for short-term shelter assistants, the city said. 

Mayor Michael Hancock said during a news conference Wednesday that he has spoken to at least 10 mayors across the country this week, all struggling to help busloads of migrants pouring into their cities.

“We have reached a breaking point,” he said, noting that the mayors are talking to the White House as well as members of Congress. “We are all raising the red flag.”

“We simply are trying the best we can to respond to the current challenge that we have. There will come a time I hope where people will understand that, just like in anything, we have finite resources and we are going to have to make a call on the resources we have available. Our finances are at the brink.”

The city is rapidly hiring people for the on-call, part-time positions, and is particularly in need of people who are bilingual in Spanish and English. 

Lana Dalton, homelessness programs division manager for the City of Aurora, looks for unsheltered and houseless individuals on the morning of Jan. 25, 2022 in Aurora. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The city is using money from its general fund to house migrants and it is seeking federal reimbursement to help cover the costs, the mayor’s office has said. The city also has asked for $1.5 million from the state Department of Local Affairs.

Denver is a so-called sanctuary city and county, meaning it doesn’t cooperate with federal immigration officials in attempts to deport residents living in the city without legal documentation.

City officials have not yet decided how long they will operate the emergency warming center, but said they will do so when the severe weather has passed. 

The city’s recreation centers and libraries are open during regular operating hours and are available to those who need a place to keep warm during Thursday and Friday’s arctic temperatures. 

The extreme weather arrives on the same night as the city’s annual vigil to remember homeless residents who died in the previous year. The memorial Wednesday night, the longest night of the year, will honor 260 people, each with their name on a luminary in front of city hall.

“For many, this will be the only service to mark their passing,” said Britta Fisher, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing Stability, noting that some of those who died this year died from exposure.

“We encourage people to come inside.”

When the city activates its emergency response, a team of outreach workers from three city nonprofits walk the streets warning people who are homeless about the bitter-cold temperatures and letting them know where they can stay inside for a few nights. 

A 10-person team from Saint Francis Center does street outreach work year-round, but the work takes on a sense of urgency when the temperatures turn deadly, said Elisabeth Francis, director of outreach. Her team was walking through encampments and chatting with people living outside all week, encouraging people to pack up their belongings or abandon them for a night or two in order to seek shelter. The center offers rides to shelters and the city’s warming center. In cases where people refuse to leave their tent, workers offer extra sleeping bags, mylar blankets and heat packs that stay warm for up to 40 hours. The packs are similar to hand warmers, but twice the size. 

“There will be a few who won’t come in,” Francis said. “No matter what, they won’t come in.” 

Francis, who has done homeless outreach for years, already knows of a handful of people she expects will decline a night indoors. The reasons are varied, but include not wanting to stay in a crowded space. Some will not want to abandon their belongings, and shelters typically don’t have places to store tents, sleeping bags, tarps and carts. 

This week’s weather is particularly dangerous because of the predicted 40- or 50-degree drop in temperature expected Wednesday night. 

“Some have smart phones with weather apps that they’re paying attention to or they are going into shelters that have weather forecasts,” Francis said. “Others don’t know what’s coming.

“We let people know that the weather is going to drop something like 40 degrees within just a couple of hours. We’re making sure folks know that even 30 minutes outside will cause your skin to freeze.” 

The group, which teams up with outreach workers from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Urban Peak, hands out flyers that describe the signs of frostbite and what to do to prevent it. 

Saint Francis was handing out gear to people who insisted on staying outdoors, but the organization had just eight sleeping bags left. 

Besides the warming center, Francis was hoping the city would give out motel vouchers for people who refuse to stay in shelters. Some won’t stay in shelters because they can’t take their dog, or because they would have to split up from a significant other. 

Melissa, a woman camped near Coors Field with her dog, Diamond, said she was planning to hole up in her tent Wednesday night. She refused to part from her pitbull-dachshund, even for a night. Melissa said she was confidant that her propane heater, plus piles of blankets and sleeping bags, would keep her warm enough, even as gusts of winds rattled her tent. “I’m not worried at all,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years.”

Melissa and a friend, Deameatrie, were camped on a sidewalk next to a parking lot and in the shadow of an under-construction office building. Deameatrie questioned why the city wasn’t handing out motel vouchers to everyone on the streets and why Colorado couldn’t spend the money to build enough affordable housing for all.

“I call B.S.,” said Deameatrie, who declined to give his last name. He pointed toward a row of cement blockades placed by the city to prevent tent camping, adding, “The city has money for that?”

Boulder also planned to open a 24-hour emergency warming center after Boulder County Public Health issued an advisory that the low temperatures “can threaten health, safety and life.” People who needed a place to stay warm were invited to stay overnight at East Boulder Community Center from Wednesday until Saturday, which is Christmas Eve. 

The center has blankets and food, and “well-behaved pets” are also welcome to come in from the cold.

Capacity at Boulder Shelter for the Homeless was increased to 222 people this week, and the center is open for overnight stays Wednesday through Friday. Other shelter options in Boulder include the Lodge at Mother House, for women and transgender people, and The Source, for homeless youth. 

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...