Will Denver's homeless women be left in the cold?
Julie Hale, sitting in the St. Francis Center on a cold morning, perks up as she hears her name called.
"Did he say Julie? Did you make it?" asks Christina Smith, a 46-year-old homeless woman.
"I don't know," says the 48-year-old Hale as she brushes past Smith and runs up to an outreach worker.
It's Saturday, the sun has just risen, and Hale and eighteen other women have been waiting for over an hour to find out if they are going to have beds that night at a church that provides emergency shelter for homeless women. She got a bed the night before, but Saturdays are more competitive.
Jeff Ritter, the outreach worker on duty, is announcing the winners of the lottery.
"Did I get it? Am I on the list?" Hale asks, her volume rising as Ritter scans his list.
"I'm sorry. You did not," he says.
It was a different Julie.
Storming off, Hale begins to shout, at no one in particular: "I never get it! I never get it on Saturdays. I am tired of this! We all take our turns, but I am tired of this."
Several women come over to comfort her as she takes a deep breath and tries to calm down. "I don't mean to take it out on you guys," she says, before bursting into tears and crying into the chest of Mary, a 62-year-old homeless woman who didn't win the lottery the day before.
"How I survive all of this is beyond me. I should be dead by now," Hale sobs. "I'm having a nervous breakdown here."
These chaotic scenes are commonplace on Saturday mornings at the St. Francis Center, which provides services and programs — but no emergency beds — for homeless men and women in Denver. This is also the place where women can get into a lottery for a bed in a program run by the Women's Homeless Initiative, which works with a coalition of local churches to provide twenty spots a night for homeless women — except on Saturdays, when WHI has access to only twelve beds. It's an all-volunteer effort that kicked off in March, just before the city pushed forward with a controversial anti-camping ordinance that made it officially illegal to sleep outside. That action was accompanied by promises from the city of more services for the homeless. And this past weekend, the city opened a fifty-mat emergency shelter for women during the winter.
But homeless women say that the city hasn't done enough. Even with the lotteries, they charge, the odds are stacked against them. While beds assigned to men occasionally go empty, homeless women say that sometimes, sleeping on the streets seems like the only realistic option.
That is, until the cops tell them they're breaking the law.
Police! Time to wake up!"
The shout breaks the morning silence. It comes from Officer Layla DeStaffany, who shines her flashlight on a homeless man wrapped in a sleeping bag beside a church in Capitol Hill. It's just past 6 a.m. on one of the coldest days yet this year, and as part of the Denver Police Department's Homeless Outreach Unit, DeStaffany has just begun her morning shift. Parking her police bicycle on the corner, she tells the homeless man he has to get up and move along.
"Just make it real clean, okay?" she says.
"Yes, ma'am," he responds.
"Was there anyone else here last night?" she asks.
"No," he says, as he sits up and starts to pack up his belongings.
After asking a few more questions and offering some suggestions about where he can find shelters indoors that night, DeStaffany hops on her bike, smooth and quick, and rides off into the dawn. She checks out a few more spots on nearby streets that she knows are go-to homeless campsites, then rides by the church again.
The homeless man is back inside his sleeping bag.
"Okay, what's going on?" she shouts, waking him. Startled, he mumbles an inaudible excuse.
"No, get up now," she says, forcibly.
"I wasn't going back to sleep," he finally replies.
"That is unacceptable," she says. "You are back in your sleeping bag."
On the first warning, DeStaffany is nice — but she becomes less so when she has to tell someone to leave a second time.
Still, this is the most confrontational tone DeStaffany will use this morning, which she spends biking in the cold for hours, searching for homeless campers and explaining to them that they must move on because "camping" is now against the law. Move where? DeStaffany, who's been with the homeless-outreach team since it was formed nearly six years ago, has a wealth of knowledge about where men and women can find a safe place to sleep indoors.
But her job is a delicate balancing act, one that involves responding to complaints filed with the DPD about disturbances as well as taking the initiative with the homeless she encounters along the way. "It's about the homeless people," she explains. "It's about the citizens who are impacted by homelessness when they have somebody that's living in their alley. It's the businesses that are impacted. It's the service providers that are impacted. It's really about everybody's safety and trying to get folks connected to the help and services that they need."
Then she adds, "At the end of the day, we're cops. We are police officers. So we have to enforce the law."
Even so, the ban has not resulted in any arrests since it was enacted in June. Not a single citation has been written in Denver for violation of the ordinance. DeStaffany explains that the way the law is written, there are many steps before an arrest can actually be made, including a written warning and a visit from a supervisor. And under the law, officers are supposed to evaluate the needs of the individuals they stop and connect them to outreach workers if they need services the police can't provide.
A summary of the camping ban's early impact shows that a total of 192 people were contacted in June and July. A single written warning was given out during that period, and seven individuals were sent to detoxification facilities for drug or alcohol problems. In those two months, 45 women were contacted, compared to 147 males. But while no one was charged with violating the camping ban, at least five people who were contacted were arrested for other violations or prior warrants during that period.
Responding to a call from her commander, DeStaffany heads to Benedict Fountain Park, where she approaches a man sitting on a bench by a cart filled with garbage bags, a blanket and cardboard. She tries to explain the nuances of the camping ordinance and why he's in violation of this new law. "You've got all your stuff here and you're using stuff to protect you from the elements, so you can't do that," she says. "You can stay here, but you can't have blankets and cardboard and all that stuff.... Does that make sense?"
"Not really," he replies.
"That's the law," she says. "That's a camping violation."
She knows this man has slept in the park before. If individuals have shelter items with them and appear to be "dwelling" in a spot, then they are breaking the law. "Does that make sense?" she asks. "I mean, I know it doesn't make sense to you, but do you understand what I'm saying?"
"What if I stash my stuff on the other side of the park?" he asks.
DeStaffany tells him that's a gray area, and she can't guarantee another cop wouldn't just ask him to move along. "We're all kind of learning the law," she says.
DeStaffany estimates that she has ridden 8,000 miles on her bicycle doing her homeless-outreach work; she encounters anywhere from ten to twenty-five homeless people a day. Altogether, the four members of her unit have probably interacted with around 4,000 individuals, she says, and they see several hundred on a regular basis. She's on a first-name basis with many of them.
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Already this morning, DeStaffany has stopped to talk with a woman who was nearly hit by a car as she wandered the streets of Capitol Hill. She's spoken with another homeless woman on the 16th Street Mall, who tells the officer that she has too much anxiety to go inside a shelter, but has a boyfriend to protect her. And she's stopped at a small makeshift memorial for a homeless man who recently died; she'd known him for years.
On one of her last stops of the day, by an empty field near I-70 and Quebec Street where some homeless camps have popped up, she spots a woman wandering precariously by the side of the road. "Where are you staying?" DeStaffany asks, as cars speed by on the highway.
"Pretty much in the street," the woman says, explaining that she was staying in motels but can't afford that right now.
DeStaffany tells the woman that she should try to get a voucher through the city or sign up for a lottery at the St. Francis Center.
"I've just been walking and walking and walking to stay out of trouble," the woman says. "But last thing I need is to end up frozen in a field. I'll give them a call."
Diana Flahive started as the note-taker. Last fall, when the St. Francis Center got together with several churches to discuss the possibility of volunteering space at night to provide a place where homeless women could sleep, Flahive, the community minister for Capitol Hill United Ministries, offered to take notes at the meetings.
As she heard more about just how desperate the situation was for homeless women in Denver, though, she realized she wanted to be more than just the scribe. "As I learned, my heart became transformed, and in that transformation, in a sense, you have no choice," she says. "In this moment of time, the call has been clear."
The 64-year-old Flahive quickly took the lead as the project coordinator of what became the Women's Homeless Initiative. Although she had no prior experience with homeless issues, her credentials include an impressive resumé of community-based work. She was the director of education and enrichment for young adults at the Cerebral Palsy Center in Denver, served as executive director of Community Schools for Denver Public Schools, and founded a dual-language Catholic school in Denver. A graduate of a New York seminary, she's also an ordained interfaith minister — and her faith contributed to her drive to build the WHI program.
"A lot of people just felt that what they were doing was part of their church mission to reach out to people in need, rather than just saying, 'We're open on Sundays to people who can give,'" says Tom Luehrs, executive director of the St. Francis Center and an early partner in WHI along with Rebecca Crummey of St. John's Episcopal Cathedral. "It was faith in action: Let's live out what we say we believe."
The group launched an eight-week pilot project in March with six churches on board, providing twenty beds a night — except on Saturdays, when they could only accommodate twelve, and Sunday, when there were no spots at all. The Red Cross provided beds, which the WHI moved around in a complicated rotation. After the pilot project ended, both the volunteers and the churches committed to continuing through at least August. By May, Flahive had collected enough donations to purchase 154 cots so that each church could have fold-up beds to roll out on its nights. In August, knowing that the need would be greater when the cold weather hit, the group made a second commitment to extend, this time through March 2013.
Aside from a very small grant from the Denver Foundation, the effort is sustained entirely by volunteers, an impressive army of church affiliates and supporters who donate time and space to shelter women. According to Flahive's records, over 36 weeks, a total of 257 volunteers have helped operate the shelters, covering a total of 2,540 shifts. Last month, the WHI was finally able to open up a church on Sunday night, too.
"Our job is offering women sanctuary," Flahive says. But she notes that from the start, the group felt obligated to do more. The churches decided that if they were going to have women staying with them, they should provide food — so now they offer dinner and breakfast at each site. Early on, transportation was an important component; Denver's Road Home, the city agency that oversees homeless issues, gave some funding to the St. Francis Center so that it could run vans to and from the churches every morning and night. That allowed the woman to gather at a single location for the lottery that would let them know where they would be sleeping, and it also helped mitigate neighborhood concerns about homeless people hanging around the churches.
Service providers quickly recognized that the WHI was filling an important niche — helping women who might not have been a good match for the few programs and shelters that do exist for women, or simply couldn't find a spot. "This is where these community efforts can really give a gift to the rest of the community and the women that they're serving," says Terrell Curtis, executive director of the Delores Project, a nonprofit that provides shelter and services exclusively for women. "That is, to get in their bully pulpit and to get on top of their steeples and scream and yell, and Diana's good at that. She is poking everybody she can to say, 'Hey, something's wrong here. Something's really, really wrong.'"
Flahive's records show that the need is great. Over a roughly fifty-day period between August and October, a total of 174 different women signed up for WHI beds in the lotteries run out of the St. Francis Center. On average, seven women landed on a waiting list each day. The WHI has attracted a core group of regulars, but even they know they'll often wind up on a wait list. One woman who has slept at WHI churches nineteen times was also turned away seven times.
Gerlinda Andrews, 61, has been sleeping at WHI churches for about four months; when she doesn't get a bed, she camps near a library. She's on a list to get permanent housing soon, she says. "It's not cool sleeping outside, especially at my age," she explains. "But you have no choice, unless I find a friend to put me up. I can make calls, but usually I don't. I don't want to intrude."
Before Krystal Wright, 33, knew about WHI, she couldn't find a place to stay indoors and instead wandered the 16th Street Mall or rode buses or light rail. She's from Wyoming and is trying to figure out how to get home, but in the meantime, she's stuck in Denver. And it's frustrating, she says, to watch women being turned away from churches for lack of space. "It really hurts to see the ones who don't get in. We do the best that we can and we try to keep each other safe," she says. "Without this, we'd have nothing."
On any given night, across the wide array of homeless programs in this city — programs that offer shelter beds, emergency mats, motel vouchers, overflow rooms, etc. — there are a total of 1,359 spots for the homeless, Road Home estimates. Of those, 932 go to single men. Only 252, including the WHI slots in local churches, are allotted to single women. (Those counts don't include motel vouchers and shelter spaces for families.)
According to the 2012 Point-in-Time Study, an annual count of the homeless population coordinated by the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, there were 12,605 homeless men, women and children in the Denver metropolitan area last January, with close to 1,000 actually on the street. Within Denver city limits, the survey determined, 34 percent of the homeless — 1,009 individuals — were women. Even so, less than a fifth of the beds available in this city are reserved for single women.
And many of those 252 spaces aren't available on a day-to-day basis. During non-winter months in Denver, there are around thirty beds total, including those at WHI churches, that women can sign up for that day on an "emergency" basis. Another 154 spots are categorized as "program beds"; the women who get those spots have them for a longer period and don't need to sign up for daily lotteries. And while they are at those shelters, they are participating in programs — including drug treatment, mental-health services and job searches — to help them get their lives back on track. Women shuffling through the emergency-bed lotteries are often on waiting lists for program beds; in the meantime, they get few of those others services.
While men's shelters have had vacancies — in the past, sometimes as many as fifty beds or mats went unused on a given night — women's shelters are almost always packed. In fact, since the camping ban went into effect, shelters for both men and women usually reach capacity.
And the wait for programs can be long. At the Delores Project, which is responsible for 42 of the program beds in the city for women, the average stay is eight and a half months — and that length has been growing over the past year.
In the winter, there are an additional fifteen overflow emergency beds for women, as well as the fifty extra mats that the city just made available in the Minoru Yasui building at 303 West Colfax Avenue. This is the first time Road Home has funded an additional cold-weather shelter exclusively for women.
If a woman can't find a spot in any of these places, the next stop is to try to get vouchers for motels, which are only available to women and families. There are about 88 voucher spots assigned to families, which helps women with children. But for women on their own, only two dozen motel rooms are available on a given night, and they come with restrictions. While under city rules vouchers will be available to women under any circumstance if it's under 40 degrees, a woman is otherwise eligible for only twelve vouchers over a twelve-month period — and any out-of-county homeless who end up in Denver only get one. Additionally, if a woman breaks the rules — anything from trashing a motel room to causing a scene or bringing in guests — she can be put on a no-voucher list.
Bennie Milliner, executive director of Road Home, points out that his agency is dedicated to long-term solutions for homelessness. But in the meantime, he says, the city is flexible with vouchers, and in most situations — and especially during cold-weather conditions — it will manage to find space for women in need.
Still, some women say they've given up trying to get vouchers, since the process just isn't worth the trouble. And they don't consider the various lotteries much better.
On Monday and Thursday mornings, 49-year-old Teresa Turner often finds herself shaking uncontrollably and is unable to eat breakfast. These are the days her short-term emergency spot at the Delores Project expires, and she has to enter her name into a lottery to see if she will have a place to stay over the next half-week.
Turner has only been homeless for about two months, since she lost her home at a mobile park where she was once a property manager. In the first weeks, she spent some nights in a friend's car and others on the street until she found the Gathering Place, a daytime center for women. At the Gathering Place, women get free meals, access to computers and connections to other much-needed services, including places that provide beds at night.
The Delores Project, which primarily saves its beds for longer-term use, sets aside ten emergency spots for women in immediate need of shelter. Four of those beds are designated for women at the Gathering Place. During the winter, though, Delores uses city funding to add overflow beds, giving the Gathering Place a total of ten emergency beds that it can offer women.
Before those extra beds were added, Turner was only chosen once in the lottery.
So on Mondays and Thursdays, she waits and listens for her name. When it isn't called, she has to wait several hours before she can get on the phone with the Delores Project and see what other emergency beds might be available. "I start freaking out the night before, and I'm a mess," she says. "I walk around the shelter and I stress everybody else out and I don't sleep, and then in the morning, I start panicking.... What if I don't get back in? Where do I go? What am I gonna do? I have nowhere to go."
Sometimes her hands shake so badly, she can't dial the phone to see if there are any spots left.
This summer, sometimes as many as eighteen women at the Gathering Place signed up for the Delores lottery, when there were only four beds available.
"It's just like the life game," says twenty-year-old Erica Guzman, who has been relying on the Gathering Place and the Delores Project since September. "You can choose where you want to go, but then there's this stuff in the way in the course of the game. You can choose...but you're not guaranteed that's where it's gonna be."
On a Wednesday morning in September, thousands of homeless individuals crowd inside the Colorado Convention Center, surrounded by hundreds of volunteers in bright T-shirts. Denver's Road Home and several other partners are coordinating the event, which is called Project Homeless Connect and is designed to provide one-stop shopping for a wide range of services.
This is the twelfth time the city has run the event, and it has the largest turnout ever, with more than 1,800 people seeking services.
Different providers are offering information and services on everything from health exams to job support to legal assistance to child care; volunteers are on site to help individuals learn about shelter and housing options, benefits assistance, veterans' services, health insurance, substance-abuse treatment and more. Women with children are waiting in line to see if they can secure vouchers. One man recently released from jail says he can't get a job anywhere, which makes it impossible for him to pay for housing, so he's waiting for help, too. While they wait, some of the homeless get free haircuts.
The array of services and the sometimes chaotic nature of the event indicate just how complicated the problem of homelessness is for the city — and how great the needs are.
A January policy brief issued by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless showed how women, more so than their male counterparts, struggle with poverty, wage inequality and a lack of affordable housing — all of which contribute to the growing number of women considered homeless. The 2011 Point-in-Time study noted that the number of homeless women was approaching that of homeless men, with growth in homeless single parents and couples with children, along with a jump in the number of single homeless females. In the 2007 survey, there were 787 homeless women counted in Denver — which accounted for just 28.7 percent of the homeless population. The latest count determined that more than 1,000 women were homeless in Denver.
One added pressure for Denver is the number of women from across the region seeking services here, which strains the city's resources. In September, for example, 43 percent of the motel vouchers were given to out-of-county women and children. And an increasing number of the women are veterans. The number has doubled over the past decade; today, around 20 percent of the women served by the Delores Project are veterans.
The Empowerment Program, a Denver nonprofit that works with disadvantaged women and connects them to an array of services, broke ground this past Veterans Day on a project that will provide housing specifically for female vets. The development, called Odyssey Family Residences, will feature 36 one- and two-bedroom apartments in north Denver, along with other services to help homeless vets turn their lives around. Like the WHI, it's largely a community-based effort.
So what is the city itself doing to accommodate the growing number of homeless women?
In addition to the fifty overflow mats that Denver is now offering with help from Volunteers of America, Road Home has funded a range of efforts since it was started in 2005, with the mission of serving as a "ten-year plan to end homelessness." Road Home gives financial support to a wide array of several homeless programs that help women, including the Denver Street Outreach Collaborative, which links them to mental-health, housing, substance-abuse and case-management services. It also funds overflow beds at several existing facilities, as well as providing motel vouchers.
The city is currently working to open a permanent "rest and resource center," which would be a 24-hour space for homeless men, women and families that offers shelter, case-management, mental-health and substance-abuse services. Although the center has been discussed for months, it has yet to become a reality. And organizations geared toward helping homeless women say they're skeptical that it will make much of a difference, even though the Denver Department of Human Services, the parent agency of Road Home, has assigned $1 million to the center for 2013.
Road Home has a budget of $8,077,279 for 2012 — with an additional $100,000 dedicated to funding winter overflow beds and related transportation. Of the total budget, 28 percent goes to treatment and services; 19 percent to emergency shelter, motels and family services; 26 percent to housing and transitional housing; and 12 percent to outreach work. The rest goes to prevention services, employment support and administrative costs.
City officials say the controversial camping ban is a tool to connect the homeless with these kinds of services.
But service providers that focus on helping homeless women argue that the camping ordinance is especially harmful to their constituents, since women are more vulnerable on the street and are now forced to hide, sometimes alone, pushing them farther into the shadows, where they face greater risks.
On nights when they couldn't find shelter, women would stick together, says Christina Smith, who has been homeless on and off for six years. "We would sleep in groups that would protect women," she says. "But now you've gotta go hide, and more women are getting hurt...because of it."
Ashley Biekarck, a resource advocate with the Gathering Place, spends much of her time trying to help women secure beds. As an absolute last resort, she gives out bus passes so that they can ride at night — a common practice of service providers when it appears that there are no other viable options.
"The 16th Street Mall was, if you were staying outside, a somewhat safe place, because there were so many people," says Biekarck. "Now that's not an option, because we'd be setting people up to get in trouble."
"This is a huge amount of fear and stress on people who are already so fearful," says the Delores Project's Curtis. "It was astonishing to me that my city would move forward with this criminalization strategy." And it was especially shocking, she adds, since there's evidence that these kinds of policies don't work.
In April, just a month before Denver City Council passed the ordinance, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness released a report on alternatives to criminalization, noting that local measures criminalizing "acts of living" — such as sleeping on the street — are generally unsuccessful and not a good use of resources.
But Milliner says Denver's ban is not criminalization. He thinks it "stated a value, and that value was that it's not humane for us to just sit idly by and watch people be outside," he says. "The intent of it is to move people to services."
Denver mayor Michael Hancock says the ordinance has already encouraged some people to go home and find family members or friends who can help them.
But organizations that work with homeless women argue that the places to which they're returning can be more dangerous than the streets."Home is sometimes the problem," says Leslie Foster, CEO of the Gathering Place. "Home is where I was getting abused. Home is where I was getting battered.... A lot of times we're very happy to hear our women are not going home."
Hancock says the city recognized that there was a bed shortage when officials promoted and then passed the ordinance, but that the ban was designed to encourage different parts of the community, not just the public sector, to work toward comprehensive solutions. So when volunteers step up through programs like WHI, the city is grateful.
"This is not just the government's responsibility to respond," Hancock adds. "This is someone's sister, this is someone's mom, someone's daughter, someone's grandchild who is on the street. This whole community must respond to this issue."
Julie Hale used to work five jobs at once. She would send most of her earnings back to Oregon, where her three children live. She was homeless from 1995 to 2007, until she finally stashed away enough in savings to pay for permanent housing. But last year she lost that spot, and now, due to physical problems, she can't find work — not that she would have much time for a job search anyway, she says, since she uses a lot of her energy figuring out where she is going to sleep at night.
Back on the streets in September 2011, she spent her first nights riding buses and the light rail. Eventually she found the WHI, which has made a huge difference, she says. But it's not a reliable safety net. And when she does end up on the street, the next day is even harder.
"Without the sleep that you need, you're running on just thin air. Your mind is so closed in, and everything seems to be going around in circles," she explains. "So how can you function?"
And on this cold Saturday morning, it's just too much when she discovers she didn't get one of the twelve coveted spots. As she cries in one woman's arms, others seated on the benches inside the St. Francis Center turn away. Some shout, some also weep. One woman gets into an argument with a homeless man about the lack of services for women — while he yells back that it's just as hard for men on the street.
Fifty-five-year-old Carol Davis has battled homelessness for decades. She didn't make the cut, either, but she has slept outside before and insists she can do it again. "I'm not gonna panic. God has kept me safe," she says, as she begins to tear up. "I'm a tough lady, but I'm only crying here because the others are crying. I do get emotional when I see the other girls who don't get in."
Even if she didn't get a bed, Hale says, she's grateful for the friends she's met through the WHI churches. "Even though we are homeless," she says, "we can still make it the best thing ever."
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