Homelessness: City's emergency overflow shelter for women has open spots

Our recent cover story -- "Bed Check," a close look at the shelter space available for homeless women in Denver -- was published just as the city opened up a new overflow wintertime option exclusively for women. The emergency spot has a total of fifty mats each night. And after more than a month in operation, the shelter is averaging nearly twenty empty spots a night -- which officials say is a good sign they are meeting the demands.

Denver's Road Home, the arm of the the city's Human Services department that oversees homeless issues, offered this new option starting last month at the Minoru Yasui building at 303 West Colfax Avenue. The program has up to fifty mats for women and remains open nightly from 6 p.m. through 6 a.m.

This effort is an important alternative shelter option for women in part because it's a walk-up location -- meaning that if women end up on one of the waiting lists for a bed, which are scattered across the city, it's a dependable last resort. In our feature, we examined these stressful, high-stakes lotteries for emergency shelter, in which some homeless women say the odds seemed stacked against them. Most shelters are reliably at capacity.

Now, when the various programs and volunteer churches that offer sanctuary to women are forced to turn away those in need away, they have a specific place to send those they can't accomodate. This is especially crucial in the context of the city's controversial camping ban, which makes it illegal to sleep outside even if shelters are at capacity.

"It's been everything we had hoped for," says Bennie Milliner, executive director of Road Home. "It points to what we knew was there -- that the need was there."

As of earlier this month, Road Home said the overflow shelter for women, which operates in partnership with Volunteers of America, was averaging 33 participants a night. Moreover, the program has seen a slow increase since it started as more people have learned about the option. In the first week, an average of fifteen were staying the night at Minoru Yasui, but began climbing above thirty around December 15.

"When you take that pressure off the helps in other areas," Milliner says, noting that, as result of this option, the city has seen a drop in the number of women looking to utilize the motel voucher program. For women and families, the city has vouchers available on a daily basis, but that process can be complicated and comes with various stipulations -- and it can be expensive for the city, too.

Women seeking vouchers are now first directed to this shelter option, whereas in the past, there might not have been much else available.

"One of our main purposes when we started to formulate this program was we wanted it to be as low-barrier as possible," Milliner says.

That means there's no complicated sign-up or transportation component and women can just show up at the location, which is very central. Road Home, through the sheriff's office, also has fifty meals available on site each night.

Continue for more on the overflow shelter and for more photos.