Should the city spend $2.3 million to purchase a building by the South Platte River and turn it into a behavioral health crisis center for the homeless? A plan to put the proposed Solutions Center in southwest Denver moved out of Denver City Council's Finance and Service Committee last week and will go to the full council for a first hearing on Monday, December 15.
If council approves the plan, the city will purchase the 25,000 square-foot property at 405 South Platte River Drive for $2.33 million; $2.26 million of that will be providing by the Denver Rescue Mission, which had planned to reimburse the amount from the $8.6 million grant the city gave the DRM to build its Lawrence Street Community Center. Another $59,000 would come from the $1 million that the Denver Department of Human Services has set aside for the 24-hour rest and resource center promised when city council passed an ordinance in May 2012 banning camping outdoors.
The proposed Solutions Center, which could open as early as fall 2015, would have room for 46 individuals; each would be housed for thirty days while receiving behavioral health services.
Even before the first community meeting in July, business owners and residents of the Athmar neighborhood were expressing concerns with the city's plan. In response, the city changed its original concept, dropping the idea of putting a 24-hour drop-in shelter in that location and replacing it with the plan for transitional housing. And after neighbors requested a chance to address the committee, councilmember Robin Kniech added a public comment section to last week's meeting.
At that session, nine people shared concerns about the project, ranging from the prioritization of behavioral services over housing for the homeless to the center's location, which is near a school, the Platte River Trail and a park.
Marcus Hyde, who has worked with the homeless and has not taken a position on the Solutions Center, said he "was happy the city is actually putting money toward homeless services...but the notion that this is somehow a solution is offensive to me." What's needed, he explained, is low-income housing and shelter beds, and he told committee members he hoped the center wouldn't replace efforts to address those housing and beds.
Both Bennie Milliner, director of Denver's Road Home, and mayoral aide Evan Dreyer responded that the Solutions Center is not a replacement for the 24-hour rest-and-resource center -- which does not yet have a location. Low-income housing is still a city priority, they said, and part of Mayor Michael Hancock's recently released five-year affordable housing plan.
Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz suggested changing the name "Solution Center" because it didn't seem like the full solution that the city needs for the homeless issue. "It seems more like a political solution than a solution to the entire problem," she said.
When Kniech voiced concerns over the cost of the proposal, Milliner said the center would actually save the city money, because the people housed there would be those who currently use expensive city services, including the emergency room, jail and detox: "These individuals are utilizing the highest level of services cost-wise that we can provide," he noted.
Kniech also reminded the committee that the National Alliance to End Homelessness's 2012 Denver Shelter Assessment reported that the city lacked enough transitional housing, which the Solutions Center would help address. "We were weakest in transitional housing...where people go for very short term periods to be able to get ready to be housed," she said.
Continue for more on the proposed Solutions Center building purchase. Acknowledging the need for this type of center, some residents said they were worried about the building's proximity to the Greenway Foundation's $5.5 million renovation of Habitat Park, the Platte River walking path and a school. "It's located in the wrong spot," said Tom Thompson, president of Colorado Sunroom and Window Distribution; the business is a half mile from the proposed center. "I don't think anybody in Athmar is against a Solutions Center as a solutions center. What they are against is the location of this."
Individuals would be taken to the center by police, first responders and service providers, but a stay would be voluntary -- and some neighbors told councilmembers they are worried that would lead to homeless wandering the neighborhood. But according to Milliner, individuals who wish to leave won't be allowed to walk out the door, but instead will be escorted by the center's staff beyond boundaries established in an agreement the city will make with the neighborhood.
Thompson also raised potential zoning issues. "One of the problems [is], nobody knows what this is going to look like. With what I know right now, it is my feeling, through my research, the SC [Solutions Center] could not obtain a building permit right now because of zoning," he said in an e-mail after the meeting.
At that committee meeting, city officials said the building's zoning would allow it to be used for a medical clinic and shelter. However, Thompson points out that under medical-clinic use guidelines, only twenty overnight beds are allowed -- and the proposed center would have 46.
According to Dreyer, a detailed zoning analysis will be done once the programming is refined and the building is purchased.
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Some property owners are worried about long-term effects, since the neighborhood is finally making a comeback after uncertain economic times. "It will stifle the development in this area, which it is poised for," said Chris Allen, a property and business owner.
"If we could wave a magic wand and this could go somewhere else, we would, but that's not really an option," said councilman Chris Nevitt, who represents the district where the Solutions Center would be located. Even though he'd rather not have the center in the Athmar neighborhood, he added, he sees the need for the service and commended the city and neighborhood for working together: "I think it's clear that we need a facility of this kind...moving people in a direction to get on their own feet, get their problems taken care of and be more self-sufficient, and the shelter system is just a Band-Aid."
But not all the property owners and residents were persuaded, and they're now campaigning to be able to speak publicly when the plan is first presented before the full council on December 15.
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