Homelessness: Report recommends partial redesign of Denver's emergency shelter system

In "Bed Check," this week's feature, we take a close look at the challenges homeless women face when trying to find safe places to sleep in Denver. Incidentally, Denver's Road Home, the agency that oversees homeless issues, has just released an assessment of the city's shelter programs -- a report which, in part, recommends officials redesign key aspects of the system.

The report, released Wednesday, comes from the National Alliance to End Homelessness and was contracted by the City and County of Denver "to assess the quality and capacity of Denver's homeless shelter system, to review shelter practices in other communities, and to make recommendations for improving Denver's shelter programs."

The assessment's topics include looks at how homeless individuals access emergency shelters, how these shelters are managed and what the various wait lists and overflow capacities are of existing programs. Seventeen different recommendations are offered across a spectrum of areas.

Our feature focused specifically on the shelters and services available for women -- a growing homeless population that may not get its fair slice of the beds available in the city. In response to these needs, a coalition of volunteer churches has stepped up to form what is called the Women's Homeless Initiative to provide emergency beds to twenty women each night. Additionally, Road Home recently launched a fifty-mat emergency walk-up shelter for wintertime that is exclusively for women and will help meet the needs that existing shelters, with long wait lists, cannot.

Some of the National Alliance recommendations highlight the challenges we observed in action as we watched various lottery processes scattered across the city in which women looking for emergency beds have to sign up on lists and hope that their names get called.

Here are some noteworthy excerpts:

• Assign responsibility for the city's overall shelter policy and design to a staff person at Denver's Road Home.

• Develop system-wide performance measures to track the overall effectiveness of Denver's shelter system.

• Develop a coordinated intake system so that people experiencing homelessness can contact one entity to be assigned to a shelter bed or other assistance.

• Begin planning a redesign of the emergency shelter system, with an eye toward using some of the existing transitional housing capacity as a 24-hour shelter system, and using existing emergency shelter beds, if they continue to be needed, as overflow shelter.

• Develop system-wide standards for safety, cleanliness, resident rights, data, outcomes, and staff training.

• Improve coordination between detoxification services, shelter, and outreach, and create a two-level substance abuse detoxification system with sobering center and sub-acute detoxification facility.

• Partner with the Regional Transportation District.

Continue for more on the assessment and for the full report. Many of the service providers that work with women have had concerns about challenges mentioned in the report -- especially when it comes to navigating the processes that are spread across the city. There are emergency bed lotteries run in several different places throughout Denver, and some women say it is difficult to secure spots and then figure out ways to get where they need to go -- especially if they have to carry their belongings with them. In surveys of the homeless mentioned in the report, some respondents describe wasting time lining up for shelters and then having to move from one line to the next when beds get filled.

It can also be difficult to connect homeless women to the services they need through these shelters -- an important part of addressing more of the root problems. The report recommends improved coordination and a stronger focus on "robust rapid re-housing capacity."

Investments that have a great impact, the reports says, are those that more directly help people move from homelessness to housing, including "permanent supportive housing."

And if transitional housing programs can shift their programming to focus on helping people find permanent solutions more quickly, such operations could serve more people over time and reduce needs for emergency shelters, the report notes.

Road Home will be reviewing the report and exploring which recommendations are worth considering and/or adopting.

"We will examine the results of the assessment in conjunction with shelter providers and decide together on a strategy for how we can best select and implement recommendations from the Alliance," Bennie Milliner, the executive director of Denver's Road Home, said in a statement. "Our shelters provide a great service for our homeless community, and they will be an integral part of our decision making moving forward."

Here's the full report. Denver Shelter Assessment_2012

More from our Politics archive: "Homeless women in Denver: Struggles of an undocumented immigrant seeking shelter"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at [email protected].

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Sam Levin
Contact: Sam Levin