Three buses will arrive just after 6:30 p.m. tonight, as they do every evening, at Lawrence Street and Park Avenue in Denver. They’re the types of coaches that one would take on a city tour or a long-distance trip, with fold-down TV screens and luggage racks above rows of bucket-seat chairs. But these buses aren’t for tourists or travelers; they’ve been chartered by the city to shuttle more than 300 homeless men and 100 homeless women to and from an overnight shelter near I-70 in Montbello.
Tonight, Conrad Tyler has been selected through a lottery system to be a passenger on one of the buses and to stay out at the Peoria Emergency Overflow Shelter, or “E-Shelter,” as it is nicknamed, rather than in one of the beds at the Denver Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street Shelter. He’s been a guest at E-Shelter for four of the previous five nights as well, which isn’t that unusual. About 500 men submit their names into the lottery each day at the Denver Rescue Mission. Since there are only 200 or so free beds there each night, though, everyone else is moved east. (The other beds out of a total of 315 at Denver Rescue Mission are claimed by those in programs or by multi-day check ins)
With about thirty minutes to go before the buses arrive, Conrad waits inside the Rescue Mission’s cafeteria with hundreds of others who’ve gathered for a free dinner. He’s staked out a spot at one of the long tables, killing time by looking at Facebook photos on his cell phone. He smiles, a little embarrassed, when he scrolls past some sexy selfies that his niece posted of herself in front of a bathroom mirror.
A flurry of white brushes up against the glass windows as the snow starts falling. Conrad remarks that he’s glad to be indoors. He’s still getting used to Colorado’s weather, having moved to Denver in late October from Bakersfield, California, just weeks before his 32nd birthday. He moved here to join his brother, but things haven’t worked out the way he’d hoped. He doesn’t get into the specifics beyond saying that he ran out of money.
Since the beginning of 2015, the E-Shelter and the buses that serve it have become one of the most significant services for the homeless funded by the City of Denver, if only because it can house more bodies on a given night than almost any other shelter. In fact, the E-Shelter now serves a third of all single adult shelter-seekers, says Jesse Granger, a spokesman for Denver Human Services. Only the Salvation Army’s Crossroads Shelter on 29th Street can hold more homeless men, and even that space almost always fills to its nightly capacity of 450.
But while the E-Shelter has become a critical component of Denver’s homeless strategy, the city plans to close it this spring — and has yet to find a new spot. Unless they do so soon, says Denver City Councilman Wayne New, “what’s going to replace it? It’s not easy to replace 400 beds, even if they’re just mats on a floor.”
One of the problems is rising property values and the prohibitive costs of buying large shelter spaces close to the heart of the city, says New, who learned of the plans to close the shelter at a recent city council retreat that he and Councilwoman Robin Kniech organized to discuss homelessness.
“And with marijuana taking up all the warehouse spaces in the city, it’s been a premium to have a location like we have,” he adds.
This is in spite of the fact that the E-Shelter is on the far outskirts of Denver, just blocks from Aurora, which means that the city has to transport homeless individuals to and from the facility. In 2015, Denver paid almost $900,000 to BusCo, Inc., for transportation to the E-Shelter. That money comes out of the budget for Denver’s Road Home, the city program responsible for distributing funds to homeless-service providers. With a budget of $6.4 million in 2015, Denver’s Road Home used about 15 percent of its resources to bus the homeless to and from Montbello every day last year.
Overall, the buses made up 5 percent of the city’s total spending on services for the homeless in 2015 (including medical services), assuming a total figure of $20 million that was reported in January 2016 to the city council. All told, there are about 3,400 homeless men, women and children in the city of Denver right now.
“Transportation is probably the single most expensive component of that shelter program — but also a critical one, considering the location of the shelter,” explains Christopher Connor, outreach manager for Denver’s Road Home.
But as Conrad and other homeless individuals who use the service can attest, the bus ride — and the guarantee of shelter — has been worth it.
At 6:30 sharp, there’s a clattering sound in the Rescue Mission cafeteria as protective metal screens behind the serving counter slide up and reveal the evening’s meal: rice, gumbo, a spinach salad. Yet Conrad’s table must wait a few more minutes before getting in line; the tables are served one by one, when an orderly gives the go-ahead. In the meantime, a conversation sparks up about the relative merits of the E-Shelter in Montbello versus the Lawrence Street Shelter.
Seated across from Conrad, a bearded man named Michael O’Connor has this take: “The E-Shelter is the best shelter option because it’s the cleanest.”
O’Connor doesn’t mind taking the bus both ways, or the requirement that everyone must return on the morning bus. “But it would be better if the bathroom stalls had doors. And I do wish there were showers there,” he adds. There are nods of agreement at the table, the general consensus being that the Lawrence Street Shelter’s only true advantage over the E-Shelter is its showers.
However, Imad Mateen chips in, “sometimes it’s hard to sleep at the E-Shelter, though, because the coughs echo.”
A pregnant woman named Alia Davis, who is due to give birth to a girl in July, says that the men get more perks when it comes to the E-Shelter. For the women, the system operates a little differently. Most can choose to stay at the E-Shelter until all women’s spaces at the Samaritan House (a shelter across the street from the Denver Rescue Mission) have been claimed, after which the E-Shelter takes on any additional sign-ups. Samaritan House uses one of the buses to transport the women to a separate wing of the E-Shelter that is run through city contract by Catholic Charities.
But compared to the men’s side of the E-Shelter, Alia says, the women’s buses get back into the city later in the morning, which means they miss the best free breakfast, at the Denver Rescue Mission.
The women’s side also doesn’t have a TV anymore, Alia claims, because it was moved to the men’s side after the Denver Rescue Mission and Catholic Charities took over in December from the Salvation Army, which used to run the entire facility.
This discussion abruptly halts the moment an orderly announces that Conrad’s table can get in line for food. When its occupants return with their loaded trays, there is little conversation; most of the men who have been selected for the E-Shelter eat as quickly as possible. Conrad finishes his entire plate of rice, gumbo and salad in about three minutes, barely a sip of water between bites. He wants to make sure he gets on one of the first buses.
His rush to get to the E-Shelter isn’t just because the line for the bus is outside in a courtyard where it’s cold and snowing, but because there are only two buses that must move 300 men (a third takes the women), each bus doing three trips out to Montbello each. For each pair of buses Conrad doesn’t get on, he knows he’ll have to wait another 45 minutes for them to return. And with the roster for the E-Shelter filled to capacity, that means some men won’t get there until nearly 9:30 p.m.
Conrad’s expediency pays off; he makes it onto the first bus. Michael and Roberto, two older gentlemen in line not far behind him, aren’t as lucky and end up having to wait the additional 45 minutes along the courtyard walls for the next pickup.
Michael has been homeless since he arrived in Denver from Detroit eight years ago; he’s convinced that the E-Shelter is the best shelter option he’s used so far. He stays there almost seven days a week, except for the times the lottery dictates that he stay in the Lawrence Street Shelter. “It’s actually been really great for us. The E-Shelter is the best,” he says. “Aside from the lack of showers, of course.”
But Michael has found his own solution to that: He washes up at the St. Francis Day Center upon returning to Denver in the mornings.
Tom Luehrs, executive director at the St. Francis Center, is all for this, and says the E-Shelter has been a positive fixture for Denver’s homeless community. “It’s a good alternative to people being on the street.”
It’s a cold night tonight, and some of the men in line for the bus sway back and forth on their feet or rub their hands together to stay warm. Eventually, Roberto nudges Michael to get moving as the second round of buses arrive. The men get their names checked off on a list and then clamber up the bus’s steep steps, immediately relieved as they pass from the frigid outside air to a warm, cozy interior.
The next thing they encounter: Tom Cruise. There’s an action movie, Jack Reacher, playing on the drop-down TV screens and blaring through the bus’s speakers. And just as the bus starts moving, Cruise is on film getting into a high-octane car chase in a Chevrolet Chevelle.
The chase ends with Cruise getting trapped, but then escaping the pursuing cops by hopping onto a city bus. Among the men watching, cheers erupt following this meta moment, and one man yells, “Nice!”
The Peoria Emergency Overflow Shelter is tucked right off of Peoria Street, near a bunch of fast-food restaurants and chain hotels — a large and largely unnoticeable concrete block of a building. Denver Rescue Mission staff say it used to be a call center, and there’s still a circular control console in the back of the main room, gutted except for a few circuit boards that weren’t removed from the wood paneling.
There’s also an LED clock at the front of the room that lists Hawaii time, Alaska time, Pacific, Mountain, Central and East. It’s still turned on, but none of the times are correct.
Perhaps the reason these amenities weren’t removed is because the city will be turning the facility back into a call center this May. It will handle the non-emergency 311 calls that get routed from citizens to various city departments.
“It was initially purchased to be a call center, and only temporarily to be a shelter space,” says Courtney Law, spokeswoman for Denver’s Office of Finance.
Prior to 2015, Denver had operated a number of smaller emergency shelters — often on a temporary basis — to handle occasional overflow problems. The E-Shelter location, which is owned by Denver’s real-estate division, was one of them, first used in 2013 as an incidental overflow during storms for three or four days at a time. But according to Connor of Denver’s Road Home, after some of the other emergency locations closed, the E-Shelter ended up being the city’s full-time overflow facility.
Tonight there are 300 sleeping pads in the single large room, leaving hardly any unoccupied floor space. The pads are spread out across the floor in twelve neat rows with about 25 four-inch-thick pads lined up in each row. The shelter provides a thin blanket for those who want one, but more experienced guests have brought their own, since some of the provided ones have holes in them or only go up to about mid-chest.
A disproportionate number of the men here are black or Hispanic. As for age, while some are teenagers, most range from early thirties to late sixties. Many, like Roberto and Michael, stick together as small groups of friends, making for a clique-ish but relatively harmonious patchwork of relationships inside this diverse community.
As an early arrival, Conrad got a spot in one of the first rows. An orderly makes sure that every sleeping pad is filled systematically from south to north.
The orderly’s other duty is to look for infractions. When he walks near Conrad, he catches a couple of men trading food at their sleeping pads. “You’re just getting that ready for the back tables, right?” the orderly asks. “No food at the pads!” The men assure the orderly that they are just getting their items together to take to a cluster of tables near a back corner of the room, the only place where food is permitted.
As soon as the orderly walks out of earshot, though, one man mutters to the other, “Don’t tempt fate, man. By rights he could’ve got us, with the food out in the open like that!”
“I know,” says the other man somberly, and they make a couple more quick trades before taking an assortment of hot dog buns, coffee and sugar to the room’s only microwave.
Given the sheer number of men who sleep at the facility and the fact that there are no security guards and Denver Rescue Mission has only a handful of staff members running it, behavior at the E-Shelter is surprisingly under control. The rules are strict, but by and large obeyed: No liquid or food by the sleeping pads, no shouting, no weed or alcohol. Smoking is permitted only in an enclosed outdoor patio area.
Some of the men have developed a joking relationship with the orderlies concerning the rules, knowing just how far they can push back without getting punished. When another man near Conrad is warned to keep his food away from the sleeping pads, he puts on a fake pout and says, “C’mon! It’s like you’re running skid row over here!”
But others have had privileges taken away. At one point, Conrad leaves his pad to hang around at the back tables — the only place where loud conversations and sounds are permitted aside from a TV viewing area in another corner of the room — when a man named DeWayne, wearing a Star Wars Tie Fighter shirt, comes and complains how his unsanctioned “grocery store” inside the E-Shelter was shut down five days prior.
“I was the biggest and most independent store in this joint!” DeWayne declares, explaining that he would go grocery shopping before boarding the bus for the E-Shelter and bring fried chicken, candy and microwave dinners that he sold at a markup. He even took custom orders from people and would bring the requested items the next night.
But the E-Shelter entrepreneur believes he may have crossed the line when he asked the staff if he could keep soda outside in the patio area to keep the beverages refrigerated in the cool night air. Shortly thereafter, he was told to shut down his store, which he had operated since Christmas and which had became his main source of income. “Now what am I supposed to do?” he asks no one in particular before heading back to his sleeping pad trailing a string of obscenities.
The irony is that none of the men who use this shelter seem to be aware that it won’t be open for much longer in any case.
With the impending closure of the E-Shelter, the DHS’s Granger says that Denver’s Road Home is on the hunt for the “next Peoria.” But even if a space like the E-Shelter isn’t located in time, he says, “we always have options...even in the event that there is some kind of shelter crisis in the city, we have an emergency overflow plan that allows us to expand shelter operations to the city’s recreation centers.”
A similar situation happened in November and December 2012, when the city used buses to transport homeless individuals to and from the MLK recreation center.
“We’re beginning conversations now to identify another location and secure a provider, ideally for a permanent overflow facility to avoid annual decisions on locations for overflow,” adds Bennie Milliner, executive director of Denver’s Road Home, in a statement. “We’re confident we’ll have a replacement identified before May.”
Whether the city can keep up with shelter demand remains to be seen. Nationally, there is a growing movement known as “Housing First,” which suggests that local governments would do better to invest in and provide permanent housing to the homeless rather than expand shelter options, which serve as a temporary fix. And recently Denver has directed some resources with that theory in mind, trumpeting the $8.6 million “Social Impact Bond” that passed city council on January 25 and will provide permanent housing for 250 chronically homeless individuals.
What is less publicized about that plan, however, is that 210 of its homeless beneficiaries won’t have units available until summer 2017. So unless there is more immediate relief, estimates for shelter demand remain very high.
It’s 9:30 p.m. when the last bus arrives, by which point most of the men at the shelter are waiting impatiently at their sleeping pads for the harsh fluorescent lights to turn off. Fifteen minutes later, they get their wish: Without warning, the main lights shut off at 9:45 p.m.
Conrad is only able to sleep until midnight; he can’t seem to keep his eyes closed past that. With more than 300 bodies in one space, he has trouble ignoring the human symphony of noises. Hardly five seconds go by without some wheezing or hacking, which only serve as notes atop the ever-present harmony of snoring. Learning to tune it all out is a skill Conrad says he has yet to develop.
As a result, he decides to sit in one of the chairs near the front entrance, which is the staging area and line for the buses that will depart in the morning.
By 3:45 a.m., others have joined him. Even though the first bus won’t make a pickup until 5 a.m., there’s still the consideration of waiting 45 minutes between busloads, so it helps to get in line early. And as more men wake up, their ruffling movements make it difficult for anyone to sleep anyway. Consequently, many of the men can only get a total of six hours of sleep between lights out and the check-out process.
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One of the reasons the buses leave so early is because some of the men work as day laborers, which requires them to be on Lawrence Street by 5:30 in order to have a good chance of being selected.
So the men line up, turn in their blanket if they borrowed one, and scan their Denver Rescue Mission ID cards. Upon scanning their card, they are automatically entered in the lottery for a bed space at either the Lawrence Street Shelter or the E-Shelter again. Other homeless individuals who want to be in the lottery will have to submit their names in person at the Lawrence Street Shelter by 12:30 p.m. to be eligible.
Conrad is happy to be on the first bus again and on his way back to the heart of Denver. Even though he didn’t sleep much, he has no plans to nap away the day. “First thing is getting some food in me,” he says. Then he’s going to check out an affordable-residence complex in Lakewood where he may be able to rent a room for six months for a total of $900.
Despite having a limp — a leftover from when he got hit by a car in California when he was seven years old — Conrad is confident that he can find steady work and day-labor jobs when he needs them. “Making some money isn’t the problem — it’s finding a place to stay,” he says. Until he has a more permanent home, and perhaps more reliable sleep, he’s found it difficult to focus on long-term employment.
For now, he says, staying at the E-Shelter — or any shelter — will do.