Local Buzz: Shelters feel the freeze

Published December 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 11

by Amelia Patterson

October 1st marked the beginning of Denver’s Cold Weather Plan for homeless emergency shelter, but it didn’t come off without a hitch.

While the homeless population has increased by 40 percent in Denver, the city has less shelter beds to go around than in previous years.  In August, the Salvation Army’s Crossroads shelter closed so it could be turned into transitional housing, thus reducing shelter beds by 100. The Salvation Army agreed to reopen the shelter in cold weather emergencies when the temperature drops below 40 degrees and all other emergency shelters are full.

Sign outside Denver Rescue Mission (FILE PHOTO)

“When I heard that Crossroads was not going to be providing service it had me very concerned, and it still has me very concerned.” Says Brad Meuli, president of the Denver Rescue Mission that shelters up to 300 men every night.

“We do not want anyone sleeping outside this winter that does not want to,” said Jamie Van Leeuwen of Denver’s Road Home in an interview in early October announcing this year’s Cold Weather Plan.

But the plan stumbled off the ground. On October 14 Meuli stated in an email to Katie Symons, the outreach coordinator for Denver’s Road Home:

“Something happened that has never happened at the Denver Rescue Mission before, we filled up our 300 beds and cots and had to turn away 72 people! We have never had to turn away that many people before….I know that there will be glitches as we work through our response to the lack of shelter beds created by Salvation Army’s change in Crossroads, but the simple fact is that we need the Emergency Shelter to be open when the Denver Rescue Mission and the Samaritan House are full regardless of the temperature.”

Over the last two years Denver’s homeless population has dramatically increased. In 2007 there were 3,954 people experiencing homelessness and in January 2009 service providers counted 6,656, and nearly a year later it is expected to be at least 20 percent higher. On any given night there are approximately 650 emergency shelter beds in Denver, and when the mercury dips below 40 degrees between October and May nearly 200 additional beds are made available.

The evening that the Rescue Mission had to turn away 72 people seems to be the exception. Temperatures in October were cold enough to open the Crossroads shelter 16 out of 31 days. But on other nights the Rescue Mission has operated below capacity.

“On warmer nights we are not at capacity and I am frankly shocked,” said Meuli. “More people must be staying outside. You and I both know there are more people out there than a year ago. We are bracing up to be a really tough winter and that Crossroads will be open a lot.”

According to Symons there are no current plans to bring on additional shelters at this time. Rather, they are looking forward to additional housing units to come on line in 2010, including 200 units of transitional housing from the Salvation Army and more housing in the pipeline from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Denver Housing Authority. The idea is to transition people out of emergency shelters and into housing rather than building more shelters.