Homeless Rights Advocates Stage Sit-In at Carla Madison Recreation Center

Jess Wiederholt and Kelsang Virya organized the sit-in.
Jess Wiederholt and Kelsang Virya organized the sit-in. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
As the temperature hovered in the low teens before a dip into single digits on March 10, homeless-rights advocates staged a sit-in inside the Carla Madison Recreation Center at 2401 East Colfax Avenue.

"It should be a 24-hour resource; it's a no-brainer," said Jess Wiederholt, a member of Mutual Aid Monday, the homeless-rights advocacy group that organized the action. Wiederholt and dozens of other people, including at least five experiencing homelessness, began filtering into the recreation center at 8 p.m. The center, which is named after Carla Madison, a Denver City councilmember who passed away in 2011, is open during the day but was closing at 9 p.m.; Wiederholt and the other advocates remained in the lobby even after staffers told them that the building was shutting down for the night.

The advocates wanted to gain attention for their argument that city recreation centers should stay open overnight during cold weather. The shelters are full, they say, and not everyone feels comfortable or is otherwise able to stay in a shelter. The rec centers would provide some protection.
click to enlarge Denver cops came into the recreation center after 10 p.m. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
Denver cops came into the recreation center after 10 p.m.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
"Some of them have been kicked out of all the shelters. He or she is outside tonight in this miserable weather," said Jerry Burton, a longtime Denver homeless-rights advocate. "It's the nighttime that counts. We are kicking people out."

Around seven Denver police officers showed up after 10 p.m. and told the group that they would work to secure beds for the people experiencing homelessness, and that everyone who remained in the building would eventually be arrested for trespassing.

Ana Cornelius of Denver Homeless Out Loud, Wiederholt and Kelsang Virya, another homeless-rights advocate, negotiated with the officers, saying that the five people who were seeking beds were not interested in going into the shelters, but instead wanted motel vouchers. Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who had been at a community meeting in the center and happened on the demonstration, had stayed for the sit-in; she negotiated with the police officers, too.

In the end, the advocates were able to secure six motel vouchers for the people experiencing homelessness, and no one was arrested by the end of the action.

"I instructed DPD to work to accommodate the unhoused community members in shelters, or if there were special cases like vulnerable adults or those who could not be sheltered to utilize hotel vouchers. I appreciate that Ana Cornelius called me, as well. DPD worked with Ana and the community members to de-escalate the situation and come to a peaceful conclusion, where all the folks were placed in hotels for the night. DPD will pass on the information for those that were sheltered tonight to [the Department of Housing Stability, or HOST] to follow up in the morning," said Armando Saldate, executive director of the Department of Public Safety.

"We know severe weather poses a serious danger to those staying outside," Sabrina Allie of HOST said the morning after the sit-in. "We have capacity for people experiencing homelessness in our shelters, and we encourage people to come inside. Last night, there were more than sixty beds available, with additional overflow capacity if needed. Restrictions from shelters are waived during severe weather events except in cases where someone has been violent. We have reached out to Denver Homeless Out Loud and Mutual Aid Monday, and hope to discuss the concerns they expressed last night further."

Going forward, the advocates who organized the sit-in want the City of Denver to open emergency overnight shelters at recreation centers during extremely cold nights.

"The reality is the existing shelters are not accessible or workable for the countless unhoused people," Wiederholt said at the sit-in.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.