Denver, CO

What it's like inside Denver homeless shelters

David Heitz

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Have you ever wondered what it’s like to stay in a Denver homeless shelter?

It can be kind of scary. But I preferred it to the street.

The two main homeless shelters for men are Crossroads Salvation Army and the city-owned 48th and Colorado shelter. Both shelters had pluses and minuses.

I remember the first night I realized I had to rest after becoming homeless. For me, homelessness came along sudden when I ran out of money. For several nights, before I knew where the homeless shelters were, I rode the trains all night.

I thought the federal government was going to save me from homelessness. It’s a long story. I had untreated mental illness.

Finally, somebody told me the main homeless shelter is the Denver Rescue Mission. I remember the first time I went.

I chickened out.

Drugs rampant at homeless shelters

You catch a bus to the 48th and Colorado shelter, as well as a shelter on Holly, from the Denver Rescue Mission. Catching the bus is a mob scene. The Denver Rescue Mission is a crazy place. Drugs are rampant. People are short-tempered and belligerent.

To catch the bus to the shelter you had to get to the Rescue Mission by 4 p.m. You stand in a line outside and then you stand in a line inside. People cut in the lines; some will cut right in front of you and look at you like, “I dare you to say something.”

The first time I went to the Mission things went OK at first. I attended a rousing church service where the pastor talked about John and David. I have a brother named John and I’m David. I found the sermon profoundly ironic.

After the sermon, when I was in line for the bus, it came time to board. People ran and pushed and shoved toward the busses. It was a mob scene. I got clobbered. When I protested the guy came after me again and I ran.

I spent that night, and so many after it, walking in circles all night long. Nowhere to go.

Bed bugs prefer the heavy drinkers

Somewhere along the way I met another homeless person who agreed to show me the ropes. He took me to Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter.

I remember being blown away by all the drugs inside the shelter. Dealing went on in plain sight. Some men would be gutsy enough to smoke a bubble (methamphetamine) outside in the courtyard. However, even pot smoking was banned.

You would walk into the bathroom in the middle of the night, and someone would be sitting on the toilet with a needle hanging out of their arm. There were no doors on the toilet stalls.

Some men would smear feces all over the toilet seats. I have no idea why anyone would do this, but it happened all the time at Crossroads. Not only was it disgusting, but it resulted in you having nowhere to have a bowel movement.

Many homeless people are miserable and want to fight. When you get inside the shelter, you learn that quickly. The other thing you notice about homeless shelters in the rancid smell of stinky feet.

At Crossroads, a couple of hundred mats sat on a concrete floor and that is what you slept on. The floor had little cracks in it where the bed bugs all seemed to live. It wasn’t a matter of it a bed bug would bite you, but when.

It helped that I don’t drink alcohol. The bed bugs prefer the drinkers.

Wearing my backpack while I sleep

Crossroads wasn’t all bad. You got let in around 4 p.m. and dinner would be served at 6 p.m. Televisions stay tuned to either channel 9 or important sports events. Having some television to watch kept the restless tame for a while.

Inevitably, fights would break out during the night. I had a few shouting matches with others; it cost me my privilege of staying there.

For a long while though, I stayed at Crossroads. I kept a journal that I since have destroyed and wish I hadn’t. I liked watching channel 9 news in the mornings at Crossroads and eating oatmeal.

I found it difficult to sleep many nights. Backpacks would frequently get stolen, so I would sleep with mine either on my back or wrapped around my feet.

Stinky man threatens to kill me

One night I slept next to a guy who smelled like vomit and body odor. I’m not sure how we got sideways, but he made a remark that he would kill me.

I reported it. You don’t play with comments like that in homeless shelters.

To make a long story short, they searched this guy’s suitcase and found a massive butcher knife.

“I wasn’t really going to hurt him with it,” the guy told the shelter boss.

They didn’t throw the guy out, and I didn’t chance it. I left.

That was another night I spent outside, walking in circles.

Valerie a superstar bus driver

After a while I stopped staying at Crossroads because they banned me. So, I went back to the Mission and taking the bus to the 48th and Colorado shelter.

One thing that struck me about this arrangement were the buses. They were luxury buses. They always played the radio on a nice sound system and once even showed an episode of a television show.

A woman named Valerie drove the bus I rode on. Valerie did not put up with any nonsense and that’s why some people didn’t like her. I kind of thought Valerie was a superstar, driving the big, luxury homeless bus.

Eventually I got banned from the 48th and Colorado shelter, too. I had complained when a man got into my bed when I used the restroom. I got thrown out.

And while that may sound unbelievable or unusual, the thugs who stay at homeless shelters frequently bully the volunteers and people in charge. They often are the ones really running the show, it seemed to me. Because the thugs got by with everything.

At least in a homeless shelter you stayed dry and warm. And you didn’t have to worry about police or security guards waking you up and shooing you away.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

Denver, CO
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