Denver, CO

Denver homeless services audit offers chance for deep dive

David Heitz

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The city of Denver is about to investigate and analyze how it delivers services to people experiencing homelessness.

The city auditor announced this week the office will examine data related to homeless encampments, mental health services, homeless shelters and affordable housing. All these services cost Denver tens of millions of dollars per year.

A recent study put the price tag of Denver’s homelessness services machine at half a billion dollars annually. Some have said it’s fat, clunky and ineffective.

The deep dive audit will look at program costs, encampment cleanup costs and the community impact of the encampments. The city claims it tries to link those displaced by the sweeps to housing. But many people in the encampments don’t want to stay in shelters. They don’t want to give up their dog or their partner (shelters aren’t co-ed).

Mental health services supply critical support to people experiencing homelessness. The audit will examine the efficiency of providing mental health services in the jail. The audit will consider whether it makes sense to keep supplying services to people experiencing homelessness once they leave the jail.

The audit also will examine whether the Department of Housing Stability is using its funding efficiently to create affordable housing projects. Finally, the audit will examine the city’s shelters to find their efficiency and effectiveness.

Audit should reveal how decisions made

While much of the analysis will focus on dollars spent, auditors also should look at issues related to how the shelters operate.

The shelters have undergone dramatic transformations since I stayed in them in 2019/2020. COVID-19 put the shelters under a microscope. Today’s shelters are open 24 hours and supply storage lockers. Those two changes alone made a dramatic improvement for people experiencing homelessness, who previously had no storage. Shelters only allowed clients inside during the night-time hours. You had to line up in the afternoon.

I cannot stress enough how important it is that the shelters remain open to clients 24 hours. I hope the audit also will look at some of the non-profit day shelters. Not to examine their books, but their models for doing business.

As someone who stayed in the shelters before being banned from them, I have some suggestions for some things the auditors should look at.

Why do people get banned from shelters?

I would ask to be supplied a list of everyone banned from the shelter. I’d investigate why those people were banned and reach out to any you might be able to contact. I was banned from the shelter after reporting someone sleeping in my bed after I woke up to use the restroom.

Yes, someone got into my bed as I was in the bathroom and claimed it was his bed. When I complained, I was thrown out.

That is exactly what happened back in 2019. I still remember what the supervisor looked like and how rude he was. He threw me out into a snowstorm. I walked two miles to a 7-Eleven and called police.

Good cop drives me to Tom’s Diner

I have written plenty about police brutality I experienced while homeless in Denver. But the time the supervisor threw me out of the 48th and Colorado shelter and I called the cops from the 7-Eleven, the responding officer was compassionate and helpful. I remember her name was Officer Beauchamp, “Beau” for short.

She was sad to hear I had been thrown out of the homeless shelter and had nowhere to go in a snowstorm. I also was banned from Crossroads Salvation Army shelter.

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I had $5 in my pocket, so Officer Beauchamp drove me to Tom’s Diner on Colfax, and I drank coffee all night.

Drugs rampant in homeless shelters

Many people experiencing homelessness will tell you it’s easy to obtain drugs in the shelters. At least it was pre-COVID shelter improvements. Security used to be sorely lacking at the shelters.

The city should figure out how bad the drug problem is and address it appropriately. It is not fair to those trying to stay sober to be surrounded by drugs and alcohol in a shelter.

Ambulances and police came with sirens wailing to the Denver Rescue Mission several times during the period between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. each night, when I would be there. The rumor always was that someone had overdosed. Other times medics simply were responding to someone being passed out from being drunk or on drugs.

Meth use was rampant in the courtyard of the Denver Rescue Mission. Three guys huddled under a blanket meant they were passing the pipe. In restrooms, it was not unusual to see a needle hanging out of someone’s arm. The restrooms in the shelters had all the stall partition walls removed due to the drug use.

Focus on removing the crystal meth

Drug use needs to be addressed head-on in the shelters. A no-tolerance policy needs to be enforced. People high on drugs, especially meth, become combative in the shelters and create chaos.

People smoking marijuana, which is legal in Colorado but not allowed in the shelters, get in trouble the most for drugs. Marijuana’s smell is a giveaway. Meantime, the drug of choice in shelters is crystal meth, which causes psychosis, hallucinations, and malnutrition.

When I used the homeless shelters, meth was rampant in all of them. Clients of the shelters sometimes got the drugs from people who worked at the shelters. Some people were fired.

Some people could openly use hard drugs and not get in trouble and others would be hassled for marijuana. Rules never were applied evenly.

Make sure shelter staffers not pushovers

The auditor also should investigate complaints of staff. The shelters had some employees who were rude and nasty to clients. Some would function as if they were on a power trip. I remember one employee who would only hand out four sugar packets to each person in the morning, reminding everyone “the sugar is for oatmeal only.”

It made everyone chuckle. I never was sure if the guy was serious. He would lower his voice several octaves and act like a soldier when barking out orders.

At the same time, the audit should make sure none of the employees are pushovers. Many illegal activities were tolerated in the shelters back when I stayed in them. Enforcement of drug policies seemed selective when you did see it. Major drug presences always got a free pass.

Measure impact of linkage to mental health care

Be sure to look at the impact made by supplying linkage to mental health services right from the shelter. This is especially important to getting people into treatment and on medication.

Some people have trouble keeping appointments for a clinic. When mental health services are provided at the shelter, or at least arranged there, more people will get care.

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The city understands the importance of providing mental health care to the unhoused. Those who stay in mental health care are more likely to stay in housing long-term.

Make sure the shelters are clean

Some of the shelters back in 2019 were filthy. The showers at Salvation Army Crossroads were slightly better than the mess of a shower room at the old St. Francis Center on Curtis. That place had mold and mildew on the ceiling of the shower with hundreds of tiny bugs teeming about. The shower floor was covered in slime and filth.

Someone would smear feces on all the toilet seats of Salvation Army Crossroads during the night. That this happened more than once is hard to imagine. But it used to happen every night.

From what I understand, the city of Denver has come a long way toward improving the way shelters run. This audit gives the city a chance to make the shelters even more effective.

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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 newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO
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