Lakewood Homeless Woes: Shelter Closes, Nonprofit Fights Feds in Court

A rendering of the housing complex that CCH is fighting for in Lakewood.
A rendering of the housing complex that CCH is fighting for in Lakewood. Colorado Coalition for the Homeless
When it comes to services for the homeless, Lakewood has already seen its share of drama this year, with fights among the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, grouchy Lakewood residents and various federal agencies over whether the CCH can move forward with a proposal to house as many as 1,000 individuals in apartment complexes on a 59-acre parcel of land next to the Denver Federal Center. The messy situation is far from resolved, having now shifted to federal court as the nonprofit challenges a federal agency's rejection of its financing plan for the project.

But this week, Lakewood's homeless-services ecosystem became even more complicated when the city's most important overnight shelter, the Action Center, abruptly announced on Tuesday, June 12, that it has to shut its doors to overnight guests because of a lack of operational funding. Pam Brier, the newly installed executive director of the Action Center (as of two weeks ago), tells Westword that a confluence of factors — grants that failed to come through, a drop in donations, a shift in leadership and a delay in typical funding sources — led to an emergency decision to shut down shelter services so that the fifty-year-old nonprofit could continue its other services at its West 14th Avenue location (which include supplying meals and clothing to families, case management, health-care consulting, and rental and utility assistance).

"We needed to make a quick decision and make sure the rest of the operations could continue into the future without risk," Brier says.

Before shelter services were suspended on June 12, Brier says the Action Center was housing an average of eighteen individuals each night. Although there are still other programs in Lakewood that house families in need and women in crisis (such as domestic-violence victims), the Action Center was the main resource for adults needing a place to stay overnight in the Denver suburb. Now the nonprofit is scrambling to find a way to reopen the shelter.

click to enlarge The Action Center - THEACTIONCENTER.CO
The Action Center
“We're committed to trying to find a way to keep this building operating as a shelter for those who need it,” says Brier. “So we're looking to community partners who might work with us either as managers of the shelter space — leasing the shelter space — or another possibility is that we get a lot of renewed support and interest in the longevity of the Action Center and we ourselves are able to open it again at some point. But I don't have any way of predicting when that might be."

Individuals experiencing homelessness now have to go to Denver to find emergency overnight shelter. And Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless says this development underscores the need for, and importance of, the large housing project that her nonprofit has been pitching so adamantly.

"I think that the Action Center shutting down its shelter space is going to leave a gaping hole in Jefferson County and the Lakewood area for being able to serve people experiencing homelessness,” Alderman says. “That was the primary shelter space. So now it seems people are going to have to travel into Denver to get shelter space. So literally, people have nowhere to go in Lakewood. ... Ultimately, it makes the case for a more dire need in the area for the project that we proposed." 

Yet the CCH proposal continues to go through its own tension-filled play-by-play as various federal agencies — not to mention a sizable contingent of Lakewood residents opposed to the idea of being neighbors with formerly homeless individuals — have weighed in on the process.

The whole project hinges on a federal provision known as the McKinney-Vento Act, under which service providers can apply to use surplus federal land to assist the homeless. CCH had previously been granted use of the property in Lakewood before that decision was reversed this year. You can read our previous coverage for a full account of the numerous twists in this evolving, will-they-or-won't-they situation.

click to enlarge A map of the site of the proposed CCH housing project. - COLORADO COALITION FOR THE HOMELESS
A map of the site of the proposed CCH housing project.
Colorado Coalition for the Homeless
But the latest developments come on the heels of the federal Department of Health and Human Services rejecting a financing application (in part because CCH accidentally sent the wrong .PDF file) that was necessary for the project to move forward. In May, CCH filed motions in federal court appealing the decision while also attempting to prevent the General Services Administration — another federal agency — from selling the property in a public auction. Alderman says that since then, the U.S. Attorney's Office has tried to get the case thrown out of federal court, which CCH has responded to by filing its own counter-motion. "So the papers are all before the court right now, and the court can either rule on the motions or it could request an evidentiary hearing," Alderman says.

The rulings — or evidentiary hearing — must occur before the land auction is set to expire on July 16, and so Alderman expects to hear from the court soon. "If the court rules on HHS's decision being arbitrary and capricious — which we believe it to be — then they will likely issue an injunction to stop the sale," she adds.

Still, throughout this lengthy process, the City of Lakewood has been no close ally of the nonprofit. When HHS rejected the finance application in March, the city's mayor, Adam Paul, took to Facebook to dramatically announce, “Application DENIED.”

In this climate, Alderman says that she also believes Lakewood and Jefferson County should have done what they could to prevent the Action Center from closing its shelter services this week. “They have the resources to keep that shelter open if that was a priority. I think it is such a missed opportunity to let the shelter space close.”

But the Action Center's Brier says that Lakewood is involved. The city has provided a certain level of funding for her organization's shelter services in the past, and now there are urgent conversations happening with various public officials as the nonprofit tries to find funding. "I don't want to tell you that they're not doing anything to help us when we're in fact in conversations and working closely to figure out what can be done,” says Brier. “I think this was the alarm bell that people needed to hear, and the alert to say this is serious and we don't want to lose the Action Center."

Alderman of the CCH has her own idea: Cities in Jefferson County should step up and support both the Action Center and CCH's proposed project near the Denver Federal Center.

"We recommend that Lakewood and Jefferson County do what they can to help the Action Center, because there are people accessing that shelter space right now who are going to be left with very few options,” she says. “That needs to be addressed immediately. But thinking long-term, we think the county and the city should think about the benefits of our proposed plan and the number of people that it can serve. We're a large and well-financed organization that has 32 years of experience doing this work, and so we feel confident we can do the proposal as we have put it on the table and finance it."

The city of Lakewood responded to our request for comment by stating, "We are continually concerned about addressing the needs of those who are homeless, and the city serves on a number of county and regional committees working on the issues of homelessness and affordable housing. Our focus is on finding quality solutions to this longstanding problem. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless proposal is involved in a federal process that isn’t related to the issue involving the Action Center’s shelter. We remain committed to the vision our residents established in several community plans for the area that the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless is seeking federal approval. We understand that the Action Center is working with those in its shelter to find a place to go, and we’re not sure what impact the closure will have without knowing those outcomes. Resources for the homeless remain available through nonprofits such as the Family Tree and county and state government agencies."
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker