No one seems to know who is responsible for keeping Denver’s homeless shelters safe

Lack of communication and uncertainty about roles led to unsafe conditions at the Crossroads Shelter. It’s not clear even today whose responsibility it is.
6 min. read
The Salvation Army Crossroads Resource Center homeless shelter next to a trendy gym, June 14, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Crossroads homeless shelter next to a trendy gym, June 14, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Last month, Denverite published an article in which fire officials said that unsafe conditions at Salvation Army's Crossroads shelter this winter could have led to a "major loss of life" in the event of a fire.

Part of the apparent problem was a lack of communication and unclear responsibilities. Despite the fact that staff at Denver's Road Home were aware of a spike in the number of people using shelter, they never alerted the Denver Fire Department, whose experts could have told them how unsafe that was.

For example, Bennie Milliner -- the director of the city's overarching Denver's Road Home organization for homeless services -- said that he was unfamiliar with the safety inspection process, and that it wasn't his "lane."

Looking for some clarity, I emailed Mayor Michael Hancock's press office with a few questions: What had gone wrong? Who was responsible? What would the mayor change to prevent this kind of breakdown in the future?

Five days and two additional emails from me later, I had a first response.

"We know you have spent hours with our executive directors and department staff who have direct oversight and impact on this matter, and they speak on behalf of the Hancock administration. I am sorry if that wasn’t made clear from the beginning, and I am sorry if you didn’t ask these questions to them. We do not have any further comment from the hours you have spent with our department heads," wrote Jenna Espinoza.

"The mayor takes the safety of homes for our people very seriously. He trusts that city directors and Crossroads leadership treat the matter with the same gravity and are working hard together to resolve the issues."

So, Hancock's office essentially deferred to the staff that the mayor oversees.

My colleague Erica Meltzer and I also checked in with two of the three council members who serve on Denver's housing and homelessness working group, and eventually got a comment from the mayor himself.

Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who hadn't yet seen the article (she was out of town), said that she had heard about the unsafe conditions through the media and not through the working group, which she said has focused more on supportive housing.

I further asked about, generally, who in the city is responsible for ensuring homeless shelters are safe.

"Denver's shelter system is very unique compared to other cities. Most cities own their shelters, or they're the primary funder ... It is such a different beast," she said. "We haven't yet figured out what it is to do more coordination ... I do have higher expectations for the city."

Overall, though, the question of day-to-day quality of life in shelters "for us as elected officials, is solidly not in our realm, because it's not a legislative piece," she said.

"... Management of contracts is not something council does. We get an up-down vote. We create new ordinances. But where you're talking just about that level of implementation, that really falls to the Mayor's Office. I think there's a lot of responsibility there."

Asked about the specific role of Denver's Road Home, she again referred to "the administration who structures that department," or the Mayor's Office. "I think you are asking a really important question, and I don't know the answer to it."

Asked again about DRH's mission, she said, "I think there are valid questions about what their role is. I can't tell you definitively whether that is or is not their role."

Councilman Paul Kashmann, also on the housing/homelessness group, said he didn't feel able to comment on whose fault it was that conditions got so bad at the Crossroads shelter, but he felt confident that nothing that serious will happen again.

The Office of HOPE, created by the mayor, is providing the type of coordination that was lacking on housing and homelessness issues before, and a City Council working group is looking for ways to "elevate the shelter experience," he told my colleague, Erica Meltzer.

"There are a lot of eyes on this situation," said Kashmann, who plans to tour all of the city's shelters this summer. "Our shelters cannot be kennels for humans. They have to be vehicles for growth to help people get back to independent life."

Meltzer got a chance to ask Hancock about the story directly, and he acknowledged some of the issues at Crossroads.

"You went right to the heart of why we have the Office of HOPE today. It's exactly those things we've picked up. That story may have illuminated some challenges, but we've all picked up that we're doing a lot of things to address housing, but we needed a better coordinated process to make sure the left hand knew what the right hand was doing," he told her after his State of the City speech.

"So many departments are involved, and we need that coordinated effort."

What does that look like?

In the end, no one at the city has singled out whose job it was to ensure that shelter conditions are safe. And, as far as we know, no one will be reprimanded for an oversight that could have been disastrous.

But, as we reported in the article, there are some major changes coming to the shelter system itself. Denver’s government has pledged $1 million toward a $5 million Catholic Charities facility that will include 150 beds for women.

Denver Rescue Mission also is building the Holly Center, a shelter that should include 228 beds for single men. The city investment in that is “to be determined,” according to city staff.

The city also will open a new shelter near 48th Street and Colorado Boulevard, about three miles northeast of Crossroads. It will be owned by the government and operated by a nonprofit, replacing the current “overflow” shelter further to the east.

Staff also are working to make sure inspectors from various departments are working more closely together. Finally, the city plans to open a "shelter design challenge" that will invite people to submit ideas about how to make the facilities work better.

Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.

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