Will Storage Units Encourage More Homeless to Use Shelters?

Kenzie Bruce
A few of the storage lockers, located next to the Denver Rescue Mission on Park Avenue West
At the City of Denver's annual housing summit that took place on May 19, Denver's new housing czar, Erik Soliván, announced that the city would take on thirty short-term initiatives by the end of 2017, including actions aimed at assisting Denver's homeless population.

The city is already following through on one of them: expanding overnight storage options.

Through two pilot programs, the city is adding an additional 210 storage units that individuals experiencing homelessness can use to secure their belongings. The programs are meant to address a common dilemma that people experiencing homelessness in Denver face: whether to stay with and protect all of their worldly possessions and sleep on the streets, or leave items (beyond what they can fit in a backpack) unattended or hidden outside in order to check into an overnight shelter (because most shelters allow only a limited number of items to be brought inside).

On May 10, the city installed ten large metal storage containers on sidewalks alongside the Samaritan House and Denver Rescue Mission. Only individuals who present an ID to Denver Public Works employees and are currently engaging with workforce training or employment, health or shelter services may use the units, which are leased for thirty days at a time with an optional thirty-day extension, according to Denver Human Services spokeswoman Julie Smith.

click to enlarge KENZIE BRUCE
Kenzie Bruce
The second storage pilot program, which is in partnership with the St. Francis Center and Denver's Road Home, adds 200 small- to medium-sized item storage units at St. Francis's employment office, which is located in Capitol Hill. That program begins on June 1.

The St. Francis Center already offers a thirty-day storage program at its Curtis Street day shelter for around 500 individuals. The new units are an expansion of that program, with individuals being able to store items for up to thirty days.

Denver's Road home will evaluate both programs after six months.

In response to the new storage options, some of Denver's most notable service providers praised the effort, including the CEO of Catholic Charities of Denver, Larry Smith, who said, “It is one small way we can make a big impact in removing a barrier people may face when deciding whether to access emergency shelter.”

However, some questioned whether the storage programs are the best approach to curb homelessness. This week, City Councilman Rafael Espinoza sent the following tweet:

In a follow-up e-mail, Espinoza told me that he's thinking about overnight accommodations for people, not just their belongings.

“I think we should establish a rule to allow urban camping, and make Civic Center Park, and dedicated areas of stadium parking lots, available 11pm-5am with certain rules about trash, etc,” Espinoza wrote. “[But] this whole concept is a non-starter for the administration because, according to [the Mayor's Deputy Chief of Staff] Evan Dreyer, the Mayor does not believe in allowing people to sleep outdoors.”

Other city officials are more optimistic. Office of HOPE director Soliván says, "These two pilot projects will increase safe, secure storage for a short time while people engage in work, health services and shelter.”

To read more of Westword's coverage of homelessness, click here.