As the City of Denver struggles to shelter an increasingly large population of recently arrived migrants, Mayor Michael Hancock has turned to the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver for help. "I’m writing you regarding a matter of urgent humanitarian need in our community," Hancock wrote on December 30 to Samuel Aquila, the Archbishop of Denver.
In the letter, Hancock asked the Archbishop if he'd be open to letting the City of Denver shelter migrants at the now-closed Little Sisters of the Poor Mullen Home for the Aged at 3629 West 29th Avenue.
"As we understand it, the facility, which is currently vacant, could accommodate 100 people comfortably. Without exploring all the details, I am asking if we can secure your approval to explore the possibility of utilizing this facility for the short-term goal of assisting migrant families in need during the winter months," Hancock wrote.
The Little Sisters of the Poor announced in August that it would be shutting down operations serving and housing elderly individuals at the site on West 29th Avenue at Lowell. The property is owned by the Archdiocese of Denver.
Hancock got the idea for using the site from Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval, who represents this section of Denver. "I’m looking everywhere. I’ve been asking anyone and everyone," Sandoval says of trying to find shelter sites.
Like other cities across the United States, including New York and Minneapolis, Denver has seen an increase of migrants arriving from the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months. In early December, the numbers grew significantly, leading the Hancock administration to transform a Denver recreation center into an emergency shelter. Denver soon began using a second rec center as an emergency shelter and a third as an orientation center, where the newly arrived migrants could either be connected with shelter or receive help in getting where they want to go. The two emergency shelters at the rec centers have a combined capacity for 700 individuals.
With resources stretched thin, Hancock declared a state of emergency in Denver on December 15, which will free up more resources to help the migrants.
On the night of December 29, the city housed 770 migrants in emergency shelters and 716 migrants in shelters provided by nonprofits and churches. The city was able to go over its emergency shelter capacity by opening an overflow shelter, which has room for over 100 individuals.
The city estimates that it has served 2,927 migrants since December 9, with well over 100 new arrivals every night. So far, it has spent $1,144,000 on services; the city projects that within the next few months it will have spent a total of over $3 million on efforts to shelter and assist the migrants. And the issue will continue to grow as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs whether Title 42, a pandemic-era rule that allows immigration authorities to more easily expel people crossing the border, can be ended.
Despite requests for assistance from the Hancock administration, neighboring counties and municipalities have not yet offered up additional shelter space, according to city officials.
"I'm concerned that our resources in Denver are being stretched and maximized," says Sandoval. "We need Adams County to help us. We need Aurora. We need Lakewood. We need other counties and the state to step up and help as much as possible."
So far, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs has provided $1.5 million for Denver to use in its sheltering efforts. Denver plans to explore whether it can be reimbursed for some costs by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But the need for more shelter space is the most urgent concern for Denver right now. In the extremely cold days earlier this month, the city opened the Denver Coliseum as a warming center. But that facility was shut down just before Christmas as the weather thawed.
With the need for more space growing, Sandoval believes that a section of the Sisters of the Poor complex could help. The closed site includes both apartments and a nursing home; she thinks the focus should be on temporarily sheltering people. "I wouldn’t want the whole thing opened up," she says. "I just think it would be complicated."
The councilmember has identified another potential shelter site in her district: St. Catherine of Siena, which is located at 4200 Federal Boulevard and also owned by the Archdiocese of Denver. "It’s a church, and they had a school, and they had to shut down the school. I was thinking in the gym or some of the classrooms," Sandoval says, adding that at the very least, the vacant space at St. Catherine's could be turned into a site to receive donations.
Sandoval points out that providing such assistance would fit right in with the Archdiocese's mission. "The Catholic Church is about helping others in times of need, and the asylum seekers are in need," she says. "It would be a partnership with the city to help people who are in need and help people who are asylum seekers."
Westword has reached out to the Archdiocese for comment.
Meanwhile, there's been some discussion about the use of the term "migrants" for the new arrivals.
"We are using both migrant and asylum-seeker as terms to denote the various reasons why people may be coming to the U.S. without us knowing the particular circumstances of each person. Asylum-seekers account for people who plan to actually seek protection by the U.S., whereas a migrant is usually a person who likely does not plan to 'immigrate' to the U.S. and is only coming to the U.S. to work or find better economic opportunities," according to the Denver Joint Information Center.
The City of Denver is currently seeking medical and non-medical volunteers to help staff the emergency shelters; find information here.
Those interested in donating items to the migrants can do so on Monday from 5 to 8 p.m. and Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon at Temple Emanuel, at 51 Grape Street. A list of what's needed can be found here. People looking to make monetary donations to assist the migrants in Denver can do so here.