Opinion: Denver homeless shelters better than they used to be

David Heitz

City and County of Denver

On Monday, the City Council will consider a contract to allow Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to provide health care in the 48th Avenue congregant homeless shelter.

As someone who experienced homelessness just a few years ago, I can tell you this is good news. I used to avoid Stout Street Clinic while homeless due to its location. I often did not feel safe going there. Having healthcare in the shelters is a positive step forward.

I wrote an opinion piece earlier this month where I detailed some of my experiences in Denver homeless shelters. I heard the next day from Greg Anderson of Citizens for a Safe and Clean Denver. He said a representative from Salvation Army Crossroads homeless shelter told him quite a bit has changed since I was homeless in 2019 and 2020, pre-pandemic. And I know that’s true.

Matt McAdams came to Denver from Los Angeles to improve things at Crossroads. He relayed some information to me via Anderson on LinkedIn about how things have gotten better.

Drunks no longer allowed

For starters, apparently drunks are no longer allowed at Crossroads. “We no longer have a ‘wet’ or ‘dry” side,’ McAdams said, referring to names shelter dwellers gave the building's two sides back in 2019. In those days, men who liked to drink stayed on the side known as the "wet side." Non-drinking individuals stayed on the "dry side,” which was considerably more quiet but cramped.

I had mentioned in my opinion piece that people who stayed on the wet side sometimes got chewed out for poor hygiene. In other words, men would complain about other men stinking. “We also work with individuals who have hygiene needs,” McAdams said.

I also had noted that at the 48th Avenue emergency shelter, I once got up to go to the bathroom and when I returned someone was in my bed. The shelter supervisor did not remove the person from my bed and instead told me leave.

Crossroads tracks who is in which cot

McAdams has an answer for that, too, although my incident happened at the 48th Avenue shelter, not Salvation Army Crossroads. “We use an intensive tracking system called the Coordinated Entry System as a way to know who is in the facility and what cot they are sleeping in,” McAdams said. “Physical violence is not tolerated; any act or threat of violence is cause for a discharge from the facility.”

I never threatened anyone. I stuck to myself. Regardless, when people get tossed from shelters now there’s a process for being allowed back inside, Adams said. “We have a reconciliation process for individuals to return to the shelter, shelter safety is the determining factor on whether an individual will be allowed back in.”

Back when I was told to leave the 48th Avenue shelter in 2020, the policy was “DNR,” or do not return.

Shelter not responsible for stolen items

As for theft, which I explained in my opinion piece is rampant in shelters, McAdams said it’s “not tolerated, we have a grievance policy in place to address theft as best we can. We are not responsible for stolen property on site; however, we highly encourage people to keep their belongings locked at all times and provide storage space for every resident.”

That’s a big plus – storage space. When I experienced homelessness, none of the shelters provided storage space, not even a small locker.

‘Emotional dysregulation a prominent feature’

“The author is correct in identifying chronic PTSD as a factor in individuals experiencing homelessness, however that is only one factor,” McAdams continues in his assessment of my opinion piece. “Emotional dysregulation is a prominent feature to individuals experiencing untreated mental health, substance use, and/or medical diagnosis. Most, if not all, of our residents have a complex mix of all three as well as other bio-social components.”

Perhaps the biggest improvement to Crossroads is that it is now 24 hours. You don’t have to gather all your stuff and leave for the day. There are day shelters in Denver for people experiencing homelessness, but they can feel territorial and unsafe.

Groups oppose urban camping

It is important to remember that Anderson’s group, Citizens for a Safe and Clean Denver, advocates against urban camping. So, it’s in their best interest to prop up shelters as a viable option. “We are no longer going to watch the decline of Denver; instead, we are going to end urban camping and stop the exponential increase in crime, trash, violence, public defecation and open drug use in our city," the group proclaims on its website. “We are here to protect the 83 percent of Denver residents who voted to uphold the urban camping ban in 2019.”

The Upper Downtown Neighborhood Association, which similarly opposes urban camping, also lists a glowing review of Salvation Army Crossroads on its website.

I have not stayed in a homeless shelter since 2020 and hope I never will again. But men who still do use shelters tell me they remain inhospitable places despite management’s best efforts.

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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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