Denver, CO

Is 32 degrees cold enough to invite homeless people in Denver inside?

David Heitz

At what temperature should the city open warming centers for people experiencing homelessness?

The city currently opens warming centers when the temperature dips below 20 degrees. That’s doubled from last year, when the temperature threshold was a dangerous 10 degrees, or six inches of snow. Cold weather activation centers now open when two inches of snow is forecast.

The mayor’s office sets the policy of when warming centers shall open, but council member Sarah Parady wants to put the directive into ordinance form – and make it 32 degrees. She and council member Shontel Lewis plan to co-sponsor the ordinance, which still needs to appear before the Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee meeting.

On Monday the Budget and Policy Committee discussed the change to 32 degrees. Most committee members seemed open to it, but some wanted explanations for why it’s 20 degrees now. “It would be helpful if someone could say why it’s 20 this is something that has been talked about for years,” said council member Darrell Watson.

Watson said he wanted to take time deliberating the policy and suggested the council hear from medical professionals and city department heads on the matter. Council President Jamie Torres, who chairs the budget and policy committee, said the change is “common sense.”

Policy not based on science

Last year, the safety committee discussed the threshold, which resulted in it being changed by the mayor’s office from 10 to 20 degrees. On Monday, Parady gave a presentation on why the threshold needs to be increased again. She noted a medical doctor told the safety committee last week that the current policy is not grounded in science. Dr. Josh Barocas of the School of Medicine at UC Anschutz said that frostbite and hypothermia can occur in temperatures as low as 40 degrees. People experiencing homelessness lose digits and limbs to frostbite every winter, he said. He said the council may want to consider changing its policy for cold weather activation.

On Monday, Parady said homeless people with weather-related injuries cost taxpayers more than a million dollars in one month in December 2022. At Denver Health, the city’s safety net hospital, 49 people that month were treated for frostbite. Most stayed an average seven days at a cost of $3,273 per day. She estimated the unpaid care provided by the area’s five area hospitals to be more than $5 million. Warming centers cost about $50,000 per day, or about $4.5 million for 90 days.

Homeless risk of death doubles in cold temps

New York City’s threshold for opening warming centers is also 32 degrees, Parady said. She noted the threshold for bringing students inside at Denver Public Schools is also 32 degrees.

According to statistics presented by Parady, a homeless person’s risk of death nearly doubles in cold weather. She spoke of a homeless man in her neighborhood who froze to death. She now volunteers at the cold weather shelter. “Human bodies are not built for extended time in cold. Anyone who lives in Colorado knows that.”

Council member Kevin Flynn wondered if there should be an ordinance requiring people experiencing homelessness to go to a shelter when the temperature dips below a certain point. Parady said such a law would be unconstitutional and bad policy.

Parady also wants to call off sweeps of homeless encampments in temperatures below 32 degrees. Two years ago, an encampment near Martin Luther King Jr. Park was swept in sub-zero temperatures, sparking outrage from homeless advocates.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at community newspapers in Southern California 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 proof that people can rebound from even severe mental illness with proper treatment. 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 in the Mile High City. You can email me news releases and story ideas at

Denver, CO

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