Ninety-three bucks will get you a room at the YMCA's central branch for a week. It won't get you a bathroom; for that, you have to go down the hall to a public facility or, as one former Y boarder says, you could just piss in the sink. But a room is a room, and for many people, it's a lot better than living on the street, especially during the cold weather -- and, even more important -- with the recent string of beating deaths among the homeless.
For years the YMCA at 25 East 16th Avenue has been a refuge for people who can't afford to put down first and last month's rent as well as a security deposit on an apartment; the Y provides 189 secure rooms on a daily and weekly basis. Although in 1994 the Y drastically increased its rates, today it is still an on-again, off-again home for some of this city's poor and displaced.
Last month, though, the president of the Colorado YMCA -- whose stated mission is "to put Christian principles in practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all" -- announced a "repositioning initiative." That's a term more commonly heard from big corporations just before they lay off hundreds of employees and close entire departments in order to keep themselves from bleeding money. In this case, the initiative means that the nonprofit organization will phase out and then close four of its twelve area branches within the next three years. It will also try to sell or renovate its cavernous, leaking, dilapidated and apparently cost-prohibitive central branch and possibly move to another -- and most likely smaller -- downtown location. "The YMCA is a mission-driven organization and a not-for-profit," says state president and CEO Thomas Craine, who was hired last June to help the Y stay afloat, "but that doesn't mean we can spend more money than we raise."
And running a 189-room hotel for the indigent at relatively low weekly rates doesn't raise a lot of money. Although Craine says he's not sure how much money -- if any -- the Y's residential program is losing, he cautions: "How it would work out and whether we would be able to stay in the residential business, I honestly don't know. Whatever the outcome, we would surely provide lots and lots of notice and would work with other agencies to effect whatever transition we needed to."
These are not exactly encouraging words for a group of people who have watched downtown's affordable housing all but disappear over the last five years, says John Parvensky, president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
"Over the last two decades, downtown Denver has lost about 500 units of low-cost hotels or housing, and this would take about another 200 units," he says. "I think it would have a significant impact, and it would compound the difficulty of folks who need affordable housing." Parvensky's organization places working people who are homeless -- or one step away from that status -- in low-cost hotels and apartments like the Y, the Standish Hotel and other facilities; he says the Y has a good reputation for its quality of housing.
Although he didn't see any mention of the residential program in the Y's painfully worded press release on the "repositioning initiative" or in the newspaper articles that followed -- both focused on programs and athletic activities -- Parvensky remembers his immediate reaction: "There we go again, another loss of housing stock, and there are no plans in place to replace it."
While the racquetball players may have been surprised, the people who were probably the least shocked were the Y's own residents, who are used to short-term leases. In the latter part of October, at least one Y resident felt he and several others were forced out of their rooms to make space for members of the Geological Society of America, which was holding its annual convention in Denver. "No one living here has enough money to conveniently vacate," he wrote in a letter to Westword. "There are hardly any other rooming houses to suddenly check into in Denver anymore. I don't know what I'll do. I know some people will meet a bad fate over this."
Richard Parson, the Y's residence director, acknowledges that he reserved about fifteen rooms for the conventioneers but says the notices were posted almost three weeks in advance and that any resident could have made arrangements for a temporary room switch. "We are not in the business of kicking people out," he says. "We don't put anyone out. Everyone who has come and talked to me, I have taken care of. I've only had two complaints. We do a lot of good things here. We run a pretty good program, and I'm as fair as I can possibly be."
Parson has fielded a lot of questions from his boarders over the last two weeks, since many of them think the transition will take place immediately. "As the residence manager, I am hoping to keep it open," he says. "We will fight for it." After all, most of the people who live at the Y are in transition -- some just lost their jobs, others just moved to Denver. There are minimum-wage earners who work downtown, there are nineteen- and twenty-year-olds who have been kicked out of their homes, and there are seniors who can't afford to live anywhere else. "I put up quite a few people who live on the street during the summer and save up their money so they can stay here for the winter," he adds. "They are going through something in their lifetime. I try to provide an opportunity for anyone who stays here to have success in their life and go on with it.
"I will present every reason I can to keep it," he adds.
Except, perhaps, a financial one.
US West's Sol Trujillo announced last month that he plans to dump $1 billion into improving the company's service, but Keith Pieper won't be holding his breath. Pieper, a Boulder Internet consultant, has created www.lifesbitterhere.com, a Web site that offers people who feel they've been injured by US West a place to voice their pain -- assuming their phone lines allow them to hook up to the Internet.
"I had a lot of frustrating experiences with US West," says Pieper. "I'd call in for service and they'd tell me I didn't have an account with them." And since he depends on Internet access for his livelihood, US West's foibles were no laughing matter. As a result, the home page of Pieper's lifesbitterhere.com features a mock "US Worst" logo and a photo of a woman screaming into a cell phone. Then come the true-life horror stories. One US West customer tells of having such a loud buzz on his new phone line that he had to use a cell phone for six months. Another hapless client says that when he called to complain about service, he was placed on hold for 45 minutes. Others write in with tales of more bureaucratic runarounds ().
But Pieper's page is a piker compared to another Web site that encourages United Airlines customers to let fly with their air rage. Www.untied.com offers an encyclopedic catalogue of passenger hell, including more than 2,000 letters that detail everything from lost luggage on a honeymoon trip to disputes over frequent-flyer miles. There's even an extensive exchange of letters between a former United pilot who criticizes the airline's safety record and several current pilots who insist United is safe. The sassy menu page mimics United's colors and logo and calls the much-ballyhooed Star Alliance between United and several international carriers the "Satan Alliance." Dissatisfaction with the airline is so high, says Jeremy Cooperstock, founder of untied.com, that he's been able to solicit contributions from fellow complainers to help fund the site.
As angry as United's customers are, though, who logs onto this site more often than anyone else? According to Cooperstock, it's United itself.
If you have a tip, call Jonathan Shikes at 303-293-3555, send a fax to 303-296-5416, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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