Homelessness: City's emergency overflow shelter for women has open spots

Our recent cover story -- "Bed Check," a close look at the shelter space available for homeless women in Denver -- was published just as the city opened up a new overflow wintertime option exclusively for women. The emergency spot has a total of fifty mats each night. And after more than a month in operation, the shelter is averaging nearly twenty empty spots a night -- which officials say is a good sign they are meeting the demands.

Denver's Road Home, the arm of the the city's Human Services department that oversees homeless issues, offered this new option starting last month at the Minoru Yasui building at 303 West Colfax Avenue. The program has up to fifty mats for women and remains open nightly from 6 p.m. through 6 a.m.

This effort is an important alternative shelter option for women in part because it's a walk-up location -- meaning that if women end up on one of the waiting lists for a bed, which are scattered across the city, it's a dependable last resort. In our feature, we examined these stressful, high-stakes lotteries for emergency shelter, in which some homeless women say the odds seemed stacked against them. Most shelters are reliably at capacity.

Now, when the various programs and volunteer churches that offer sanctuary to women are forced to turn away those in need away, they have a specific place to send those they can't accomodate. This is especially crucial in the context of the city's controversial camping ban, which makes it illegal to sleep outside even if shelters are at capacity.

"It's been everything we had hoped for," says Bennie Milliner, executive director of Road Home. "It points to what we knew was there -- that the need was there."

As of earlier this month, Road Home said the overflow shelter for women, which operates in partnership with Volunteers of America, was averaging 33 participants a night. Moreover, the program has seen a slow increase since it started as more people have learned about the option. In the first week, an average of fifteen were staying the night at Minoru Yasui, but began climbing above thirty around December 15.

"When you take that pressure off the helps in other areas," Milliner says, noting that, as result of this option, the city has seen a drop in the number of women looking to utilize the motel voucher program. For women and families, the city has vouchers available on a daily basis, but that process can be complicated and comes with various stipulations -- and it can be expensive for the city, too.

Women seeking vouchers are now first directed to this shelter option, whereas in the past, there might not have been much else available.

"One of our main purposes when we started to formulate this program was we wanted it to be as low-barrier as possible," Milliner says.

That means there's no complicated sign-up or transportation component and women can just show up at the location, which is very central. Road Home, through the sheriff's office, also has fifty meals available on site each night.

Continue for more on the overflow shelter and for more photos. Many of the organizations that offer emergency and longer-term shelter options for men and women were strongly opposed to the camping ban -- in large part because it seemed very clear to them that throughout the year, there just weren't enough beds.

Milliner says he hopes the overflow option, with the regular vacancies, help ease some of those tensions.

"It clearly is a means of growing the trust and to soothe some of the concerns as a result of the camping ordinance," he says. "It's going to be an ongoing process."

Road Home also has around 150 overflow spots for men.

"Across the board...we are happy we've been able to take 150 to almost 200 people off the streets during incredibly cold nights," Milliner says.

But, he adds, "There are still some people that are very resistant to shelter."

And as of now, the additions represent only the winter overflow option, meaning it's set to end in April.

However, overburdened shelters may push the city to maintain a similar mat system in the spring and summer.

"When our efforts have taken anywhere from 150 to 200 folks off the street, we clearly know the need is there," Milliner says, noting that Road Home will continue to look for options to expand its shelter beyond winter. "[The need] doesn't go away because the magic date of May 1st comes."

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