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New Homeless Center in Athmar One Step Closer to Reality

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The new behavioral health services center to serve mainly homeless individuals is one step closer to becoming a reality with the release of a Request for Proposal from the city for a service provider.

In December, the city approved the purchase of the 26,000 square-foot building at 405 South Platte River Drive to house the new program, dubbed the Solutions Center, despite concerns from neighbors and homeless advocates. The building was purchased for $2.3 million.

Denver’s program, which could launch as early as fall 2015, is modeled after one in Seattle, managed by Seattle's Downtown Emergency Service Center. The Solutions Center will house up to 46 individuals at one time; there will be sixteen short-term crisis service beds with a maximum five-day stay, and thirty beds for a thirty-day stay with services. All clients will be referred by police, EMT services, mental health professionals or other groups; walk-ins will not be welcome.

The Solutions Center is designed to save the city money by relieving emergency services. According to the RFP:  “By improving the methods in which first responders interact with people experiencing behavioral health crises and by creating more appropriate alternatives to utilization of emergency rooms and jail, the City can reduce tax payer costs, provide individuals with the appropriate services needed for short-term stabilization, and connect individuals to long-term solutions.”

The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless estimates that about $31,546 is spent annually on emergency services for an individual homeless person. This statistic, which takes into account detox services, incarceration, hospital stays (including ER visits) and shelter costs, is used to argue for permanent supportive housing, which keeps homeless individuals off the street with services to address the issues that brought them there. The center will not guarantee long-term housing for the homeless; after a homeless client's stay (which will primarily be voluntary, though some people might be placed on involuntary mental health holds), the service provider is supposed to help find the individual housing — but affordable housing options are limited and the city admits that individuals might end up back on the street.

According to the RFP, the center's operational costs, to be determined by the provider, will be covered by a combination of Medicaid reimbursement, private reimbursement, city funding and private support.During the building purchase process, residents and business owners in the Athmar neighborhood voiced concerns at a number of city-hosted meetings. Some in the Athmar neighborhood felt the details of the center — which was originally proposed as a walk-up, 24-hour resource center for the homeless — were too unclear. Others were concerned about the program’s effect on the neighborhood.

“All through the whole process, I don't feel any of our input thoughts or concerns matter,” says Bill Fowler, a business owner in the neighborhood. “I am glad we are at least on record with our concerns, just in the unlikely event things do not go perfectly and there is distribution to the neighborhood, businesses and the new beautiful park.”

The RFP notes that the city expects the center’s service provider to set up a good neighbor agreement with the Athmar neighborhood and create a process for communication — likely a committee of concerned and invested neighbors.

Ian Harwick, current president of the Athmar Neighborhood Association, says he was glad to see that stipulation to work with the association and neighborhood in the RFP. “At first I thought it should have included more for us, but then after thinking about it, I think it is probably about right," he adds. "I think that most things cannot be done until we have the provider selected. The expectation is there for them to work with us."

Homeless advocates have voiced concern that the building purchase and new program might take resources from other much needed homeless services — mainly a 24-hour homeless resource center promised when the camping ban was put in place in 2012, shelter beds, and permanent supportive housing. The city says that these are all still priorities.

Proposals are due in late April.

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