Could a network of storage make homelessness easier in Denver?

The nonprofit St. Francis Center has hosted these storage spaces for decades. Now, the city government and a local pizza shop are following suit.
5 min. read
Tom Luehrs, longtime director of the St. Francis Center, stands for a portrait in the facility’s storage room on Dec. 1, 2017. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

Tom Luehrs, longtime director of the St. Francis Center, stands for a portrait in the facility's storage room on Dec. 1, 2017. (Andrew Kenney/Denverite)

Hundreds of gray plastic bags line the metal shelves of a fluorescent-lit room at St. Francis Center. Each is tagged with a person's name, and each contains something worth saving: a fresh sweater and a pair of pants, a walking cane, a birth certificate.

Every few minutes, someone comes to claim theirs. This room contains their most important possessions.

"You have to have a place … You can’t take it with you," explained Brian, a middle-aged man who has been staying in the city's emergency shelters for a month. "You have to be light."

The nonprofit St. Francis Center has hosted these storage spaces for decades. Now, the city government and a local pizza shop are following suit -- and there's plenty of demand. About 10,000 different people last year visited St. Francis Center, which offers a variety of services, and more than 600 are using its storage spaces.

"These are always full," Luehrs said.

An idea spreading?

Earlier this year, the city installed 10 larger metal storage lockers along Lawrence Street's nearby sidewalk at a cost of about $3,000 per locker. Each is large enough to fit about a shopping cart's worth of stuff, with a small window so that police can ensure that no one is sleeping inside.

"It’s a very positive move. We’ve been pestering for them to do that for years and pushing that for a long time — and they did," said Terese Howard of Denver Homeless Out Loud. She said the city became more receptive after Mayor Michael Hancock brought aboard Erik Soliván and created the Office of Housing and Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE).

Still, Howard said, space is at a premium, and she worries that the city's lockers are too expensive to scale up.

"You wait on a waitlist or you happen to be in the right place at the right time," she said.

Meanwhile, her organization and other businesses are trying to build storage themselves. In October, Denver Homeless Out Loud worked with Sexy Pizza to install four storage boxes in front of the pizzeria's Capitol Hill store. Like the city lockers, each one is reserved for a single person for weeks or months at a time. They can be locked and accessed anytime.

A locker at Sexy Pizza in Capitol Hill is adorned with messages about homelessness. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
A bit of controversy:

"It's worked out great. The only issue we've had is these very conservative people across the street that like to complain about everything in the neighborhood," said Kayvan Khalatbari, a minority interest owner of the pizzeria and a candidate for mayor in the 2019 race.

One of those complaints -- from a nearby apartment building, he said -- made its way to city hall. City inspectors found that Sexy Pizza didn't get a permit for the lockers, which count as a "detached structure."

The city has asked Khalatbari to apply for a permit, which he expects to get without trouble. Denverite reached out to apartment buildings in the area for comment.

What's next?

DHOL is searching for more businesses to host storage lockers. Khalatbari wants to see a broader network.

"The problem people have with homelessness is the concentration," he said. Providing more storage, he theorized, would keep people's goods off the street while also making people more mobile, since they don't have all their stuff with them.

Meanwhile, St. Francis Center also has opened a second storage facility in Five Points with 200 more storage slots, which the city provided funding for.

It's something that Luehrs said he has been asking about for years. The new space is about half full -- a reflection of a surge in the number of people experiencing homelessness in Denver, according to Luehrs.

"A lot of people expected the homeless population increase would just be a little blip," he said — but the numbers simply haven't gone down.

And while he believes that the best answer is housing, he says he's glad to see that the city and its nonprofits are rethinking how they handle shelters and other short-term services. However, the city also has kept up the police operations that force people to move from location to location, often dragging their stuff with them.

For its part, the city government says that its outdoor lockers have been a success, and it may place more.

"Specifically, we need to identify what viable locations might exist for additional storage units since there has to be a large right of way/sidewalk area in order to accommodate ADA (accessibility) requirements," wrote Julie Smith, a spokeswoman for Denver Human Services.

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