Denver, CO

Denver Police will take homeless to diversion center instead of jail

David Heitz

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Denver Police supervise an encampment sweep.Denver Homeless Out Loud

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Denver police will soon take people experiencing homelessness who commit low-level crimes to a new "diversion center" instead of jail.

The diversion center at Elati and 14th Street across from the downtown city jail will book low-level offenders for trespassing and misdemeanor drug crimes. Then instead of being thrown into a jail cell, the diversion center will help connect them with services including mental health care, housing, food stamps, and more. Most will be assigned case managers.

Executive Director of Public Safety Armando Saldate calls the Assessment, Intake and Diversion Center, or AID, the intersection of public health and public safety. He said anyone could use the center's services. They don't have to be in the criminal justice system.

Councilmember Amanda Sawyer praised the pilot program. "It's a one-stop location to access agencies," she said Wednesday during the Homeless, Public Safety, Education and Housing Committee meeting.

'It is not a crime to be homeless'

But Councilmember Robin Kniech said the new diversion center still sounds like jail for people experiencing homelessness. She said it goes against everything the council recommended to police about interacting with people experiencing homelessness.

"It is not a crime to be homeless," Kniech said. "This deeply concerns me. Drug use exists among housed and unhoused people," she continued, noting people experiencing homelessness can't hide in a house to use drugs.

"Massive amounts of people without housing are not on drugs," she said, adding that people experiencing homelessness need help from service providers, not law enforcement.

Saldate said it's important to "hold accountable those preying on those with substance abuse challenges."

Trying to eliminate encampments

Saldate doesn't intend to jail people for being homeless. The goal is to get them off the street.

Kniech also wondered why the city needs the diversion center since it has the STAR program. The STAR team responds with a paramedic and mental health professional to reports of people in duress who may need mental health treatment, substance abuse services, or just a place to use the restroom.

Saldate said Denver needs the center to process people who have warrants. Ideally, a judge would agree to a court delay to give someone accused of a crime who is experiencing homelessness a chance to stabilize. "STAR is not the be all end all. STAR cannot clear criminal warrants."

Creating new pathways

The council did not take action on the center, which will be running by summer and has already been funded. "We do not want to release people right back to the same conditions of homelessness, right back to spending the night at Union Station," Saldate said.

He said calls about people experiencing homelessness in duress often come from the transit hub and 16th Street Mall. "We hope this will create new pathways for folks."

Neither STAR nor center do everything

Saldate said he couldn't guarantee the center would be able to help everyone completely and immediately. There are not enough treatment beds for people experiencing a mental health crisis. The same goes for substance abuse treatment centers.

Saldate said treating meth addiction, common among people experiencing homelessness, is time-intensive. He said the department would track data from people who use the center. For example, they will document the outcomes of people treated for addiction. Do they return to the street and their drug of choice, or do they become housed and stay sober?

Kniech won't support program

Kniech said she needs to learn more before she supports the program. She wondered how 911 operators decide when to dispatch STAR and when to dispatch police. When STAR comes, people usually don't get arrested.

"So many questions are raised by this, I actually have no idea where we are headed as a city," Kniech said.

She said she thought police agreed to no longer transport low-level offenders and instead let STAR handle those cases.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO
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