He got promoted. Now he might reinvent Denver’s homeless shelter system.

Denver is looking at a dramatic reinvention of its shelter system. Maybe.
6 min. read
The Salvation Army Crossroads Resource Center off Brighton Boulevard, April 12, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver has plenty of shelter beds where people can escape life on the streets for the night. But that's not solving the real problem, according to the new leader of the city's homelessness program.

"Yes, there is enough shelter beds to meet the demands of homelessness in the city,"  said Chris Conner, who became the director of Denver's Road Home on Monday.

"However, how we have them organized and distributed and configured right now is not meeting the needs of everyone."

Now, he has outlined a dramatic reinvention of the nine shelters that house nearly 2,000 people most nights in Denver.

"We've essentially been providing crisis response," Conner said of the city's current system. Its shelters, most of which are run by nonprofits and religious groups, are primarily a place where people can come inside from the cold.

"That's critical work that needs to get done," Conner added. But the consensus he's found is that the shelter network should be "all about moving people toward housing."

The core idea is to "reconfigure" the city's shelters.

Right now, its largest facilities are open only at night, with a much greater emphasis on emergency housing than job counseling, medical care and other services. Beds are readily available for single men, but they're often inconvenient or unavailable to women, transgender people, working people, couples and families.

And, at times, the shelters can become downright dangerous. Fire inspectors in 2016 discovered conditions that could have caused a "major loss of life," at one of the city's largest shelters on Brighton Boulevard. (The Salvation Army has since made safety changes and may rebuild the site.)

In a plan released this week, Conner and a consultant recommended that the city try to:

  • Create 24-hour shelters, so that clients don't have to obey strict schedules that can make it difficult to hold jobs and get care.
  • Eliminate "arbitrary" limits on how long people can stay.
  • Bring more services to shelters.
  • Focus on building dormitories rather than warehouse-style shelters when expansion is necessary.
  • Lease apartments where families can live, instead of sending them to motels.
  • Create more options for young people, women, transgender people, couples, people with pets and others.

That's a big change.

Leslie Foster, the president of The Gathering Place, said that Conner has introduced some long-needed but potentially disruptive ideas.

"I think that there’s a sense that this is a beginning of a new approach, and I'm not sure that everybody’s in love with the new approach," said Foster, whose shelter provides for women, children and transgender people.

Some shelter providers are worried about how they'll fund some of the reorganizations and shifts suggested by the plan, Foster said.

But she added: "Speaking for myself, I think Chris did a great job with this. What we’ve been doing isn’t working, so I'm certainly open to the idea that there’s some other ways of doing things."

Conner's staff worked with national consultant Mandy Chapman Semple over three months to research the report. They paid a fee of about $50,000 he said.

Retrofitting the system would be a major expense.

The ideas would be a "real sea change for our shelter system if they can be implemented," said Terrell Curtis, executive director of The Delores Project, which supports women and transgender people.

But that will depend both on money and "if shelter providers are willing to change their model."

The Delores Project already chases the same goals, providing guaranteed weekly stays for people who need emergency shelters, plus case managers who help people find services.

For example, she said, the shelter's staff were able to help an elder woman change her colostomy bag each night. She was able to stay at the shelter until they found her a housing voucher and searched for the rare building that would accept it. And when something went wrong, they covered her rent in a pinch.

Providing that kind of service across the system could require a legion of new staffers -- the standard is one case manager per 25 guests, Curtis said.

And when the city asked shelter providers about converting to 24-7 operations, "the question was perplexing," Conner said. They just haven't considered the option yet.

Who's going to pay?

Councilwoman At-large Robin Kniech said that the city needs to put some money on the table. She suggested that the city immediately set aside millions of dollars of budget reserves to tackle the project.

"We can’t wait for another budget cycle," she said.  And she said that the city needed to hire more staffers for Denver's Road Home. The city has asked way too much without providing enough money to the agency, she said.

"I think part of the disappointment in the prior leadership of the department was that we expected someone who was administering a ton of contracts and dealing with crisis management all the time, to also be doing all this transformational stuff you provided today," she said.

"... Nowhere else in the city do we expect the same person to do all those things."

Conner's plan doesn't identify a funding source or even a potential budget. That's still to come, he said.

Who's the new guy, anyway?

Former director Bennie Milliner left the role last year to become a community liaison at the Denver Sheriff's Department at Mayor Michael Hancock's request.

At the time, Councilman Wayne New said that Milliner "didn't have the resources" to transform the system, but also failed to advocate for change. The leadership change came after revelations of dangerous conditions at the city's largest shelter, though city officials say there was no connection between the two events.

Conner took over as interim director, and recently became the permanent director. He previously worked directly with young, homeless people at Urban Peak, and most recently was a staffer at Denver's Road Home for 7 years.

Mayor Michael Hancock's administration also has converted the leadership position from a political appointee to a regular hired staffer, which means that the mayor can't simply hire and fire the person in the position.

Amber Miller, a spokesperson for Hancock, said that the administration approved of Conner's work. The plan is still a "work in progress," she said.

"We're looking to this shelter plan as another positive step forward for the city to take our sheltering system to the next steps," she said, "so it’s not just focusing on quantity, but also quality."

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