Denver, CO

Opinion: What homeless people fight about in shelters

David Heitz

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Denver police cruisers often sit outside Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter.Google Street View

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Earlier tonight I mentioned to a neighbor that my heart is heavy for the residents of Quality Inn on Zuni in Denver.

While the hotel has operated as a homeless shelter for two years during the COVID epidemic, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless will stop using the Quality Inn this week.

Other “protective action” hotels for people experiencing homelessness also may be closing at the end of this year. For now, the Coalition and Salvation Army, funded by the city, are keeping a few open.

“Can you imagine having to go back to a shelter like those people at Quality Inn?” I asked Bryan Nevins, who lives in the apartment above me. “Hell no,” he replied.

A tale of two Quality Inns

Nevins and I live in Fusion Studios, which is a Colorado Coalition for the Homeless property. As a matter of coincidence, it is a former Quality Inn permanently turned into supportive housing for the homeless. Residents here pay 30 percent of their income for rent. I have had months where I had to pay $800 or more. For the first few months until I found a job, I paid nothing.

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Fusion Studios, a Colorado Coalition for the Homeless property.David Heitz

I have lived at Fusion for a little more than two years. I share the information about my rent only because people in the comment streams of my stories frequently claim the housing is free. It is not free if you’re working or collecting a government check. And people who don’t pay get evicted all the time.

Violence at Crossroads, shelter on 48th

Some of the Quality Inn residents at the Zuni location have been there two years, too. Previously, these people lived on the street or in congregant shelters to which some may have to return.

Nevins and I during homelessness stayed either at Salvation Army Crossroads or the city-owned “E shelter” on 48th Avenue. Each place had their own vibe, but neither was pleasant. Fights erupted constantly.

Many people experiencing homelessness suffer from chronic PTSD. Annoyances can be maddening and rile some people.

Cutting in line leads to fights

At the shelters, homeless people fought about people cutting in line more than anything. Some people would saunter up to the front of a line, start talking to people like they knew them, and try to blend in.

Homeless people spend hours waiting in line. For everything. Most people at least respect those who show up early for meals and shelter. They tend to be responsible and deserve to have first dibs on a table or a cot.

But many homeless people think they don’t have to wait in line, they’ll just cut or push or shove or kick their way to the front. This frequently happened at Denver Rescue Mission.

When I would go to the Mission’s downtown location, I would mark a spot in line to catch a bus to the shelter on 48th Avenue. If someone cut, I usually didn’t say a word. I don’t like to fight.

Most times we would arrive at the shelter and fights would break out immediately. If people weren’t fighting about cutting in line, they were accusing one another of theft.

Homeless people stealing from homeless people

As Nevins pointed out, homeless people stealing from homeless people is a sad reality. In shelters, some thieves will remove a person’s shoes and steal them while they sleep. Then, when the person wakes up with no shoes, nobody will say a word about what happened.

It’s maddening if it’s your shoes. That’s why it’s always a good idea if you’re homeless to have a buddy to pal around with. You can look out for each other. At the same time, you must know which people to avoid.

Items get stolen from backpacks while people sleep. I usually slung my backpack around my legs while I slept at shelters. But one time, when I slept with the backpack as a pillow, I woke to the man on the mat next to me using a pocketknife to cut my backpack open.

Stinky feet leads to punches thrown

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How Soon Ngu

Another thing shelter dwellers fight about is odor. Stinky feet and body odor, mostly. Some shelter guests will take it upon themselves to publicly point out who stinks and demand they take a shower. I have seen fights over B.O. turn into physical brawls.

“Especially with the drunks on the wet side,” Nevins said during our discussion earlier tonight. The "wet side" refers to a section at Salvation Army Crossroads where all the drinking homeless people stayed. Indeed, back in 2019 Crossroads had a “wet side” and a “dry side.” Not that drinking was allowed.

‘What are you looking at?’

Staying at homeless shelters is risky and downright dangerous. Nevins and I discussed tonight how fights would erupt if you accidentally glanced at someone. Some people constantly accused others of staring at them and would become violent. You can be minding your own business in a homeless shelter and the next thing you know you’re being punched in the face.

The other thing people fight about in homeless shelters is the cots. A common trick in shelters is to steal someone’s cot when they get up to go to the bathroom. That is, cot thieves crawl right onto the cot. Then they simply tell shelter staff that it’s their cot. If they know the shelter staffer on duty, they often are allowed to keep the stolen cot. It happened to me one night.

The night someone stole my cot

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48th Avenue shelter in Denver.Denver Rescue Mission

One night at the shelter on 48th I came back from the restroom and a man was sleeping in my cot. When I asked him what he was doing, he said it was his cot. The man who ran the shelter was very rude and would not listen to a word I had to say. I left the shelter and walked down the street to a 7-Eleven and dialed 911. I told the dispatcher what happened.

She sent an officer who picked me up in 15 minutes and showed great compassion. Her name was Beau Beauchamp, I could never forget her. It was snowing outside. She said she would give me a ride anywhere I wanted to go. I had $5 in my pocket. I asked her to drive me to Tom’s Diner on Colfax, where I sipped coffee all night long with that $5. Free refills.

That officer provided an ear when I really needed one. I remember her telling me I could ask for her again if I had any problems. I am so grateful for her kindness that night.

I hope nobody from Quality Inn on Zuni has to return to a congregant shelter. It’s a recurring nightmare I still have sometimes.

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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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