Denver Mayor Mike Johnston and his homeless czar, Cole Chandler, can hardly contain their excitement. Monday will mark the first “encampment decommissioning” where people experiencing homelessness will be swept from the sidewalks and into the Park Hill Best Western.
The city purchased the building as part of Denver Mayor Mike Johnston’s House1000 plan. The mayor plans to house a thousand people by the end of this year. He plans to place them in hotels, pallet shelters and traditional rentals.
Johnson and Chandler should be excited. What Denver is attempting by moving an entire encampment together (or at least most of it) is rather groundbreaking. The idea of keeping people who were encampment neighbors together when they are moved into housing is bold.
What could go wrong? Plenty. What could go right? Plenty.
When I experienced homelessness in 2019, I stayed in an encampment for a while. I did not have a tent or even a tarp. I slept on an old couch that had been dumped in the Salvation Army crossroads shelter parking lot. I was not allowed to stay in any of the congregant shelters, banned after people picked fights with me. And that is the complete truth.
But to be perfectly honest, my time staying in the encampment felt safer than when I would sleep by myself down by the Platte River. The guy in the tent next to my couch had a job working with Bayaud Enterprises/Denver Day Works a few days a week. So, he had a small income and therefore always had marijuana. He shared it with everyone.
Other people – almost everyone living in the encampment, actually – smoked meth. According to Housekeys Action Network Dever, drugs will not be allowed in the Best Western homeless hotel. It is almost laughable that people coming straight from an encampment are going to quit drugs cold turkey when moving into a hotel. It just doesn’t work that way. People in encampments who have been medicating their pain with drugs and/or alcohol for months or even years will need help to get off substances. They can’t get help when they’re on the street not even knowing where their next meal is coming from. This is the philosophy behind “Housing First.” Housing First is the notion that if you allow people experiencing homelessness to move into a unit without requiring sobriety, they will be more likely to seek treatment once they settle in.
Do people really get sober?
Does this really happen? Sometimes. I after all live in Fusion Studios, a former Quality Inn and Suites in Park Hill that was one of the first homeless hotels if not the first in the Denver metro. It is owned and operated by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Drugs are rampant at Fusion. And of course, they are not allowed, they are illegal. But that doesn’t mean the rules are enforced.
There would be a lot of empty rooms if the Coalition started kicking out people that they suspected of using drugs. Most people don’t smoke drugs in the hallways, but some do. No, most stay in their locked rooms and use, hopefully not alone if they are smoking “blues’ or using fentanyl. Overdoses in so-called homeless hotels are frequent. There have been several at Fusion in the three years that I lived here.
So, unless they are going to put cameras in all of the rooms at the Best Western, I highly doubt anyone is going to get kicked out for using drugs. And don’t even get me started on marijuana, which of course is legal in Colorado. Marijuana is medicine and many people experiencing homelessness use it to soothe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. I even have my medical card for that diagnosis. If a homeless hotel were to throw people out every time they smelled marijuana, there would be almost nobody left.
Frequent fights, trash in hallways
Fights at Fusion are as frequent as the sailor mouths. You will hear people pounding on drug dealers doors, begging them to answer. Many people stop short of going into convulsions when they can’t get their drugs. Others do convulse.
If you are someone who does not like noise, your life can be miserable in a homeless hotel. People blast their music day and night. Never in my life have I seen an entire building of people who bang on the walls and the floor. I have called the police several times regarding the noise at Fusion. They do come. Sometimes, people get arrested, particularly if they have warrants.
I often become angry with some of my neighbors at Fusion because they appear to have absolutely no respect for themselves or others. For the longest time, people dumped their garbage by the elevators instead of taking their trash outside and down to the dumpster. Staff put up a flier showing Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street in his garbage can. The flier read something to the effect, “We know it can be hard to take out the trash. Do you need help? Please contact staff.”
Finally, if you live in a homeless hotel you need to get used to people parking shopping carts full of trash in the hallways. Sometimes you will see urine or blood splattered in the elevators.
I just shake my head.
What is ‘acuity?’
This brings me to ‘acuity.’ According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “When used in healthcare settings, ‘acuity’ refers to an individual’s level of illness severity or their severity of needs. Acuity levels are classified numerically or into high/medium/low groups to translate the level of care needs and assessment findings into a classification system to help determine staffing patterns, practice approaches, care coordination, and resource allocation to best serve clients with the right level of care provided in the best manner in the most appropriate setting.”
Although that may sound like word salad, it’s an important point. If people are going into housing where certain levels of care or treatment are offered – or not – those coordinating entry need to know before the resident moves in. At Fusion, we have people who appear to be near death. One man was not toilet trained; he used to defecate in his room, and the odor triggered your gag reflex. He reportedly died of overdose.
That man should have been in a nursing home. He had trouble getting around and was quite old. Instead, he spent his final days running to the corner and flying a sign, every day, dancing.
Actually, he was quite friendly and seemed rather happy much of the time. But he was sick.
There are other sick residents. We had one resident who refused to wear clothes. He’s no longer here. Others are physically sick and even jaundiced. Some are diabetic. Some are on oxygen. Others have dementia.
Success or failure up to encampment dwellers
It will be interesting to see whether the Best Western ends up a hodge-podge like Fusion, with young and old, healthy, and sick. If they are moving an entire encampment, some sort of social network already exists among the group. If their network practices constructive behaviors, such as helping neighbors, being respectful of others and having respect for themselves, I believe the Best Western will succeed. But if it’s just a bunch of “service-resistant unsheltered addicts,” as Citizens for a Safe and Clean Denver refers to many people in encampments, it is destined to fail.