Homeless advocates debate best actions

As county irons out wrinkles with Severe Weather Action Plan, citizens emphasize other approaches

Liam Adams
ladams@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 2/22/21

After one of the coldest weekends in Colorado in a while, Adams County, city councilors and residents are pausing to assess the merits of various resources for people without shelter. The county’s …

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Homeless advocates debate best actions

As county irons out wrinkles with Severe Weather Action Plan, citizens emphasize other approaches

Posted

After one of the coldest weekends in Colorado in a while, Adams County, city councilors and residents are pausing to assess the merits of various resources for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

The county’s primary emergency shelter program, the Severe Weather Action Plan (SWAP), has recently received criticism from some community members for its intake process. The debate over SWAP — and another one about communication among Northglenn City Council — are taking place as homelessness in the metro area rises and as activists push for new solutions.

In previous years, Cold Weather Care, a local nonprofit, provided emergency shelter in Adams County through a network of churches, but that stopped with the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, in January 2020, Adams County launched SWAP. The new program offers hotel vouchers to people when nighttime temperatures drop below 32 degrees when it’s raining or snowing or 20 degrees when it’s dry.

Since SWAP’s launch, the number of unique clients it serves and the vouchers given out has increased. For people experiencing homelessness, SWAP has been a “vital and lifesaving resource,” said Ashley Dunn, executive director of Brighton-based Almost Home, the nonprofit that operates SWAP for the county.

Over the recently frigid weekend, SWAP served the most amount of people in a single period of time, Dunn said. Actually, for the first time ever, they ran out of vouchers. For those who didn’t get a voucher, the county provided transportation to a shelter in Aurora.

Debating the gaps

Despite its widespread benefit over the weekend, some community members were critical of it.

“A program like SWAP has a lot of potential and it has really good intentions,” said Northglenn resident Lauren Weatherly. “But they don’t have enough resources and it’s not working to serve all people.”

Weatherly helps lead a local activist group, the West Adams County Collective (WACC).

It wasn’t just the shortage of vouchers that Weatherly was critical of, it was SWAP’s accessibility. For someone to have gotten a voucher, they needed to go to the intake center at Anythink Library on Huron Street on Feb. 10. Because vouchers ran out, the intake center was closed as of Thursday.

Meanwhile, Weatherly and other WACC organizers were on the street Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 13 and 14, distributing equipment. There, they found three individuals near Northglenn in need of shelter. So, the organizers started a GoFundMe campaign to put the three people up in a hotel.

One of the individuals, Aki Christian, who goes by Chris, said, “They stepped up right up personally and did something about it … It was a great alleviation.”

Chris hadn’t gone to the intake center that Wednesday prior. Instead, he said he used his phone to email the SWAP email address to ask for a voucher but said he didn’t receive a response.

Dunn, and others managing SWAP, said they are aware of problems with SWAP’s centralized intake system.

“Prior to this past week, we were administering this entire program with one part time staff at Almost Home, that meant that we did not have the capacity to do intakes at multiple sites,” Dunn said.

To help address the issue, the county has partnered with Lyft for municipal outreach teams to dispatch a ride for someone to the intake center. Almost Home recently moved the intake center to its office in Brighton from the Anythink on Huron.

In the near future, though, Dunn expects intake to be less centralized, once six cities ratify intergovernmental agreements with the county for SWAP. The IGAs will enable cities to help fund the program, but also allow municipal homelessness coordinators and outreach teams to do intake themselves, in addition to police officers or other first responders who encounter someone after hours.

Weatherly thinks the forthcoming changes are a step in the right direction, but still feels that, “...there does need to be an incredible amount of capacity building about SWAP.”

Her opinion is partly influenced by WACC’s emphasis on “mutual aid,” or as Weatherly said, “Is recognizing that the traditional systems that exist to serve people … aren’t working. So bypassing systems to just get people exactly what they need.”

WACC’s relatively recent entrance on the scene coincides with a wider regional movement to support people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in new ways. More notable examples in Denver have been tiny home villages and safe-camping sites, ideas that Weatherly thinks Adams County or its cities should consider.

An emphasis on communication

Northglenn Mayor Pro Tem Jenny Willford, who has observed the recent progress of Northglenn’s homelessness outreach, who is also a proponent of ideas like a safe-camping site, looks at the situation from both sides. “I don’t expect us to have all the answers, but I do expect progress and unfortunately, we’re not there,” Willford said.

Though, Willford said that whichever strategies the county or cities choose, communication is necessary.

Wilford said the need for better communication was apparent after a Jan. 25 Northglenn City Council meeting. Councilors discussed the death of a man experiencing homelessness earlier in the month after receiving an email from City Manager Heather Geyer. While some on the council said that email was enough, Willford and Councilors Julie Duran Mullica and Katherine Goff said they had wanted more information in subsequent updates.

Council even discussed possibly drafting a policy to have the city manager provide more detailed and frequent updates when someone experiencing homelessness dies. The idea didn’t receive approval, though.

Both Goff and Willford said that was discouraging. Councilors and staff both need good information to evaluate what to be done differently in the future, Willford said. Goff said she appreciated the idea because it allows councilors to raise a more widespread awareness.

“Communicating this kind of information can help our residents understand the need for better access to shelter for those who need it,” Goff said.

To Goff and Willford, communication is a resource unto itself, just like a tiny home village or safe-camping site.

“Having an increased awareness lends itself to a response … If we know these things are happening in our community, then we can’t ignore them,” Willford said.

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