Denver plans friendlier homeless shelter system after failure of “Right to Survive”

The city of Denver is preparing for what its leaders describe as a new approach to homelessness.

“We have a crisis on the streets,” said Councilwoman At-large Robin Kniech at a meeting Wednesday. “We made a lot of promises during the (Initiative) 300 campaign about what we were going to do better, and I think we must back those up with resources.”

Denver voters recently rejected Initiative 300, which would have granted new rights for people to take shelter in public spaces. The campaign against the measure focused on the idea that the city could “do better.”

The city is making about $10.7 million available for shelters to open new daytime services and make shelters more accessible. Six groups have expressed interest in the expansion effort, according to Chris Conner, executive director of Denver’s Road Home.

“We’re challenging providers: How do we create shelters that are 24/7?” Conner said.

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Instead of scrambling for beds, people could be assigned beds for longer periods. Instead of waking up at dawn, they could be allowed to stay during the day and store belongings at the shelters. And the shelter system could loosen its strict schedules, making it easier for working people to get in at off-peak hours. More details about the revamp are expected in the months ahead.

The city also will rearrange its management of homelessness programs as part of a new housing department. Previously announced by Mayor Michael Hancock, it’s expected to launch in January 2020 under Chief Housing Officer Britta Fisher. The city auditor has described the current system as “fragmented and understaffed.”

But the changes come against a worrying backdrop: There are suggestions the Salvation Army’s large Crossroads shelter on Brighton Boulevard could close.

“They may shut down the Salvation Army shelter. The loss of that means we pick the rest of that up,” said Councilwoman At-large Debbie Ortega. The shelter has suffered from overcrowding and required expensive quality-of-life fixes. The charity has floated plans to rebuild the shelter, but even that plan could require closing the shelter for some time. Representatives didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Homelessness has remained steady over the last few years, with a 2018 survey finding about 3,400 people living without permanent housing in Denver. Unsheltered homelessness — people living on the streets — makes up about a fifth of the total.

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