A proposed homeless shelter that will sleep nearly fifty people faces stiff opposition in the Athmar neighborhood. Dubbed the "Solutions Center," the shelter would provide short-term housing for individuals dealing with mental-health issues and chemical dependency. But residents aren't happy about its proposed location, which is near a neighborhood park that's getting a $5.5 million renovation.
The Solutions Center would fulfill a promise to create a new shelter made more than two years ago by the city, after Denver City Council passed an ordinance that made it illegal to sleep outside on public or private property. Since the ordinance took effect in June 2012, about 2,000 individuals sleeping on the street have been asked to move along -- although police didn't begin ticketing until this summer.
The proposed shelter, modeled after a similar one in Seattle, will take in individuals who are in crisis and provide them with stabilization services, then move them into short-term housing for thirty days at the facility. Following that, they'll be connected with long-term treatment programs off-site.
"After considerable work to identify the specific needs of Denver's homeless population, we know the Solutions Center will fill a large gap within the wide spectrum of services the city and our critical community partners provide," Mayor Michael Hancock said in a statement announcing the new shelter earlier this month.
Photo by Britt Chester
Residents and business owners in Athmar agree that a service like the Solutions Center is needed but aren't happy about it being in their neighborhood -- although not for the reasons you might assume, they say. "The majority of the opposition to this project is not simple NIMBYism or disregard for the homeless community," says Grant Shelly, who lives a mile from the proposed shelter. "The majority of the opposition agrees with the need for this type of facility but feels the city is currently displaying some poor choices in city planning."
Those poor choices involve the proposed center's proximity to a school and the Greenway Foundation's $5.5 million renovation project the South Platte River; when it's finished this spring, the project will have turned a former dump site into an educational park for children and families. (The Greenway Foundation declined comment for this story.)
Some residents also claim the city didn't ask for their input, although Denver officials did change the original plan for the 25,000 square-foot space at 405 South Platte River Drive. Initially, the shelter was to be a 24-hour drop-in rest and resource facility, where homeless individuals could stop in at all times of the day and find services and a resting place; that plan was not welcomed by the Athmar community, and the city reacted.
"We intend to maintain a consistent dialogue with the community throughout this process and throughout the life of the facility. Based on concerns we heard from the community, we adapted the original plan to make the facility referral-only," says Julie Smith, spokeswoman for Denver's Road Home.
The city has also promised that the facility's operator will have security at the new center. "It's the first time we've required such a component for one of our programs," adds Smith.
Some neighbors acknowledge that the city listened to their concerns. "Important concessions were made changing the facility from a 24-hour drop-in facility...to something more similar to the Crisis Solutions Center in Seattle, Washington. That is a very important concession," Shelly says. "So the city has been proactive in listening to the community and responding. Still, the 25,000 square-foot building seems a bit large for 46 patients and it is difficult to trust the city is giving a straight answer here."
Other neighbors are more suspicious. "[The city] has touted this as something the neighborhood directed, but I was at all three Athmar Neighborhood meetings and most everyone there was not in favor of the Solutions Center at all," says Tom Thompson, president of Colorado Sunroom and Window Distribution, which is located a half mile from the proposed center. "If the neighborhood had its way, there would be no Solutions Center in Athmar."
The neighborhood association is drawing up a good neighbor agreement, similar to the one used at the Seattle Crisis Solutions Center, and the neighborhood board is expected to vote on the agreement in the new year.
Some business owners are worried that the neighborhood association's president, Ian Harwick, is not considering their opposition to the center because he's a candidate running for Denver City Council in the May 2015 elections. But Harwick denies the campaign has influenced his opinion, saying the good neighbor agreement will ensure the city listens to the neighborhood's worries.
"I think the best way for us to hold the city accountable is for us to make sure that our major concerns are written into the city's contract with the future provider," Harwick says. "In my opinion, the city has been active in communication with the neighborhood association. After we voiced our many concerns about the 24-hour drop-in facility, they took that aspect off the table, and have consistently listened to our other issues. That being said, there are still many fears about the proximity of the facility to the new park, the bike path and the school."
Although service providers say they are glad the city is doing something, they say the Solutions Center is no replacement for the 24-hour shelter the city promised. This past January, there were 1,754 individuals sleeping on the streets and/or in shelters, according to Metro Denver Homeless Initiative's Point-in-Time report. Currently, there are 1,450 beds for the homeless, counting winter overflow, according to the city (during the recent cold snap, the city said it had about 1,388 beds plus 32 vouchers for hotels). A center that sleeps just 46 people won't fill the 300-bed gap.
Besides, individuals can only get to this shelter through referral, so the average John Doe on the street who missed the evening's lottery for a shelter bed will still have no place to go.
"The Solutions Center is an additional service which is always helpful, but it does not replace the Rest and Resource Center, and the city has said that," says Tom Luehrs, director of St. Francis Center, Denver's day shelter.
"We thought this would be a 24-hour Rest and Resource Center where people could drop in and hang out 24 hours a day while trying to be connected to services," adds Brad Meuli, president and CEO of the Denver Rescue Mission. "It is a little different than what I thought it would be, but I'm glad something is happening and I hope this will be helpful."
There are still some questions about the programming at the proposed facility, which the city says will be answered once a facility operator is chosen. For example, it is not yet known if the shelter will serve all genders, how much the day-to-day operations will cost, and where people will go after thirty days in the Solution Center if they don't have a home.
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According to the Mayor's office, Denver City Council should see the purchase and sale agreement in the coming weeks, perhaps as soon as December 2. Funding for the estimated $2.2 million building will come from a combination of Denver Human Services funds, the city's general fund, Medicare reimbursements and other outside sources, says Smith. Once the property is purchased, the city will take proposals from current service providers for managing and operating the facility.
"The project and budget is an awful lot of money to throw at a small population," adds resident Kent Avery. "My personal belief is that there are better ways to spend this money. If it is to be spent on homeless, I would rather see homeless families addressed."
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