Early wintry weather tests Denver’s shelter capacity

As an unusual storm arrived, Denver opened the Glenarm Recreation Center as an emergency shelter for women and transgender individuals, and the Denver Rescue Mission reopened its Holly Street shelter for the night for men.

The Glenarm Recreation center has opened as an emergency shelter during a summer snowstorm. Sept. 8, 2020.

The Glenarm Recreation center has opened as an emergency shelter during a summer snowstorm. Sept. 8, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver officials opened emergency shelters and canceled a street cleanup as wintry weather hit the city Tuesday.

Britta Fisher, who heads Denver’s housing department, said icy rain that was expected to turn to snow presented “a first test to see how our capacities run.”

Since the pandemic arrived in March, shelters have had to reduce beds to allow for the social distancing necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Denver shelters have also switched from overnight-only to 24-hour service so that people without homes would have a place to be safe, requiring increased staffing as well as more meals and other services.

The city responded to reduced capacity by opening temporary shelters at the National Western Complex and the nearby Coliseum and securing more than 800 hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness who were affected by the coronavirus. Last month, women and transgender individuals who had been staying at the Coliseum were transferred to hotel rooms and to existing shelters, and men were moved from National Western, which the city had been leasing, to the Coliseum, which the city owns.

The emergency shelters and hotel rooms brought the number of beds back up to pre-pandemic numbers. But shelter providers are seeing more people on the streets as the economic slowdown created by the coronavirus has caused more joblessness.

“The concern is that we will not have enough shelter beds,” said Kristen Baluyot, who is the Salvation Army’s Denver metro social services director.

Baluyot said her organization’s Crossroads shelter reduced its capacity from about 500 to about 250 to allow for social distancing. Monday night it was near its 250-bed capacity, she said.

“If those hotels were not open, we’d be quite worried,” she said. She said service providers were “operating with hope that hotels will continue to be available indefinitely.”

Denver City Council has approved the lease of a warehouse at 4600 East 48th Avenue that will be converted into a new shelter later this year.

As the unusual storm arrived Monday, Fisher’s housing department opened the city’s Glenarm Recreation Center, at 2800 Glenarm Place, as an emergency shelter for women and transgender individuals. The facility was to be open around-the-clock through lunchtime on Thursday. Fisher said one person slept at the shelter Monday night.

The Denver Rescue Mission was opening its Holly Street Shelter Tuesday evening for men. Buses were to take men from the Coliseum to Holly Street for the night.

Holly Street had been closed to ensure the Denver Rescue Mission had enough staff for the temporary shelters. Brad Meuli, president and CEO of the Denver Rescue Mission, said his organization could cope this week, but was working to hire more staff for the winter.

“We’re hustling as fast as we can,” Meuli said. “We’re going to find out what our capacity is when we start getting more cold weather, more snow and rain. We’re all working feverishly to make sure everyone has a place to stay.”

Meuli said 24-hour shelters were easing pressure on the city’s day shelters. St. Francis Center and The Gathering Place, day shelters that in the past might have extended hours, were open normal hours on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a cleanup that would have meant scattering people living on the streets in Curtis Park was called off on Tuesday due to the weather. Nancy Kuhn, spokeswoman for Denver’s Department of Transportation & Infrastructure, said that a new date for the cleanup had not yet been scheduled.

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