Community Gears Up to Help Unsheltered People During Snowstorm

Jordan, photographed in October, has lived on Denver's streets for the past three years.EXPAND
Jordan, photographed in October, has lived on Denver's streets for the past three years.
Sara Fleming
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If predictions hold up, Tuesday will be snowy, freezing and blustery here in Denver, and while that means traffic jams and delays for many, it may be life-threatening for some of the city's most vulnerable people.

When temperatures drop, the homeless are especially at risk. Every year, a handful of people die from freezing or hypothermia. Earlier this morning, Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca says she was notified that an unhoused person was found unresponsive in a tent. Investigators have not yet confirmed whether the death was related to freezing or hypothermia.

When winter storms blow in, the city's shelter system and agency outreach workers will ramp up efforts to find people and get them a bed inside a shelter. Denver's Road Home, the agency that oversees the city's shelter system, partners with the majority of shelters and coordinates outreach efforts to people living on the streets. Its street outreach team can help get those individuals into shelters and provide transportation.

Denver's Road Home maintains a list of options for various populations seeking emergency shelter on its website, as well as a directory here.

Denver's Road Home Director Chris Conner testified in a court hearing about the constitutionality of Denver's camping ban that although there has never been a night in the past year when Denver's shelters were at their capacity for places for single men, the shelter system could not necessarily accommodate all individuals experiencing homelessness, including the more than 500 who live unsheltered.

Most shelters generally close at or around 10 p.m. Though certain shelters may be more loose with their policies in extreme weather events, generally they will only accept new guests after their closing if accompanied by an emergency worker such as an officer with the Denver Police Department.

Some people experiencing homelessness resist going to shelters, even in dangerous conditions. They may have various reasons, including negative experiences, being triggered by the crowded environment in shelters, or having been barred because of past behaviors or incidents.

Terese Howard, an activist with Denver Homeless Out Loud, says her organization takes donations for survival gear, including tents, tarps, sleeping bags, blankets, good winter gloves and hand-warmers at the group's office at Centro Humanitario, at 2260 California Street. She also urges those who "give a fuck" to make those donations directly to folks on the streets.

"What people need in these sorts of weather crises is protection from the elements, whether that’s while outside  — a tarp or tent or coat — or inside, meaning transport or assistance in getting into a shelter or library, or a bus ticket. What an outreach worker would be doing is assisting in any of these ways. That’s something that anybody can do," she says.

She has a word of advice for anyone who chooses to do so, however: Don't try to force folks on the street to go to a shelter. "We know ourselves best," she continues. "You have to really listen to folks to understand what’s gonna meet the immediate need — if that’s driving to a shelter, cool, but if it’s giving them five bucks to go into a coffee shop and be warm for a couple hours, that’s cool, too."

Shannon Francis, the board chair of Four Winds American Indian Council, says she recently started opening the Council's doors to unhoused people during extreme weather events, specifically when temperatures drop below 25 degrees. Given how much frustration there is with shelters and how increasingly unaffordable housing can be, Four Winds sees a need for this type of less formal emergency-based shelter space. The small-budget organization is run by volunteers, and though they don't have resources to open the building on a consistent basis, she still wants to welcome those who might not feel comfortable at other shelters. She requires that guests be sober and not bring alcohol or drugs on the property. She will post on Four Winds American Indian Council's Facebook page when it will be open.

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