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Denver gets creative to shelter the homeless

David Heitz, NewsBreak

Jan 27, 2022

A Denver City Council committee affirmed its commitment to using alternate methods to shelter the homeless.

On Wednesday, the Public Safety, Education, Housing and Homelessness Committee approved spending $11 million, including $3.9 million for Colorado Village Collaborative to operate four safe outdoor spaces in the city through 2022.

Safe outdoor spaces are tent communities used for housing the homeless. Unlike homeless encampments, the spaces all have durable fishing tents with heat and electricity. A security fence with a locked gate encircles the property.

Mental health professionals and caseworkers provide services to help the homeless transition to more permanent housing.

While some balk at using tents for shelter, it's a logical next move when leaving an encampment for many.

Outreach workers say people experiencing homelessness often don't want to stay in shelters because couples can't stay together.

Other people have dogs, which homeless shelters traditionally ban.

But City Council member Robin Kniech said Wednesday that kennels were available while the city operated a shelter at the former National Western Center. "My understanding was that the pets had to stay in the kennels, and nobody used them for that reason."

Angie Nelson, the city's assistant director of Housing Stability, said the city plans to add kennels and a dog run at the 4600 E. 48th Avenue shelter. While the shelter is renovated, she said the city is "looking into privacy options." She did not say if that meant dividers or separate rooms.

Couples and people with dogs are allowed in safe outdoor spaces. The Collaborative placed 47 people into permanent housing in 2021. The non-profit served 242 people in 2021 across three sites.

In 2022, the Collaborative hopes to place 90 people into permanent housing and serve 370.

Council member Amanda Sawyer is not a fan of safe outdoor spaces. She wondered why the city doesn't instead use America Rescue Act money to renovate the Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter.

Salvation Army Crossroads 'desperately' needs renovation
The city purchased the shelter three years ago. The building is a former flower warehouse. Clients have reported that bugs crawl from cracks in the walls and the floor. Ventilation is poor. The building appears run down. "Crossroads definitely needs to be renovated and updated," Sawyer said.

"We're always looking at what's the highest and best use for that property," Nelson said.

The shelter property is adjacent to luxury apartments. Sawyer said zoning allows eight to 12 stories.

Kniech wishes the city would instead spend its money on permanent housing because it's more cost-effective. But the city can't build housing fast enough and needs a variety of shelter options.

Even if the city permanently houses between 500 and 1,500 people per year, Kniech said, the number of newly homeless people each year in Denver is four or five times that much.

Cole Chandler, who heads the Collaborative, said most of their clients come from "places not fit for human inhabitation," usually street encampments.

Also, Wednesday, the committee agreed to award Colorado Coalition for the Homeless a $3.7 million contract for 2022 to provide street outreach services. The city also will spend $1 million this year to provide hotel and motel vouchers.

The full City Council must approve the committee's decisions and likely will do so Monday.

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