Denver, CO

Opinion: Homeless shelter security must be priority

David Heitz

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Nobody wants to have to sleep with one eye open. But that’s sort of how it feels when you stay at a Denver homeless shelter.

I experienced homelessness in 2019 and stayed for several months at the 48th and Colorado shelter owned by the city and run by Denver Rescue Mission. It’s the same shelter where an employee lost his life this week when a client stabbed him to death.

The client had been banned from the shelter for fighting. He returned and a fight ensued. The employee died from a stab wound at the hospital.

I recently wrote a story for NewsBreak about a contract the city awarded to Securitas to provide security at the shelter.

Shelter worker fatally stabbed by client

“Security at homeless shelters has been sorely needed for many years,” I wrote when the contract was approved in September. “I experienced homelessness in Denver in 2019. I never saw any security at Salvation Army Crossroads or the city-owned shelter at 48th and Colorado. There were people hired to watch over things, but they were not trained security officers.”

A city contract shows the area outside, where the employee was killed, should have been monitored.

“All Securitas security personnel provide general customer service such as answering questions and providing directional assistance, assist with de-escalation amongst guests, monitor entrances/exits, and conduct observe and report protocols,” according to a city staff report. “By location, Securitas security personnel may also perform perimeter patrols, parking lot patrols and bag screening.”

Man made stink during nightly ride

Boarding buses to the shelters from the Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street community center used to be a dangerous free for all. People would cut in line and pull a knife on you if you dared challenge them. They would hide outside and leap onto the buses without coming from the line inside the community center.

One man would defecate in his pants each night on the ride from the community center to the shelter at 48th and Colorado. Fights also would erupt on the bus.

The buses themselves were very nice. Sometimes the driver would play a portion of a movie on the bus’s entertainment system. Each seat had its own television.

The luxury buses shuttled people experiencing homelessness from downtown locations to shelters in the Central Park neighorhood. In addition to the 48th and Colorado shelter, the buses took clients to the Rescue Mission’s shelter on Holly.

The city is set to add $1 million to the $5.4 million contract with the bus company, Busco, on Monday. That will pay for services through the end of this year.

Safety and security must be provided

Some who advocate for people experiencing homelessness say security makes clients feel like criminals. Some security companies have bad track records for harassing people experiencing homelessness in places like Union Station. Firms like these should not be used if all they are doing is aggravating people experiencing homelessness.

However, good security companies do exist and should be a critical part of all places serving people experiencing homelessness. I frequently felt unsafe at the Denver Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street community shelter as well as the shelter at 48th and Colorado. I had knives pulled on me in both locations. It is a terrifying experience.

Once I was knocked to the floor unconscious, cold-cocked while waiting in a line to get to the bathroom at the Lawrence Street community center.

The building where I live is owned by Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. It has 24-hour armed security, and that makes me feel safe. Most of the guards are courteous and respectful.

People experiencing homelessness live in a constant state of duress, making conflict inevitable. Untreated mental illness can result in dangerous situations.

Trained, effective security staff should be required at all places serving people experiencing homelessness. If those in need of services don’t feel safe, they won’t seek help.

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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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