The results of our informal survey prompted 9Wants to Know to stay at one of the city’s largest shelters, and review 911 calls from three of Denver’s largest shelters in an attempt to verify the reasons given for choosing the streets over shelters.9Wants to Know found that calls to fire, police and paramedics more than doubled from 2014 to 2016 -- as the number of homeless in the metro-area rose to more than 5,100 men, women and children. Denver shelters offer 1,800 beds on any given night.
RESULTS: The 9Wants to Know homeless survey9Wants to Know walked the streets and parks of Denver asking homeless people a series of questions about the shelters and living on the streets.
Here are a few highlights from the survey:- The survey respondents ranged in age from 20 to 74 years old
- 21 said they had been homeless for more than 10 years
- 40 said they were from Colorado, 35 of whom are from Denver
- 70 said they would rather sleep outside than in the shelter
Their reasons for staying out of the shelters varied. Twenty eight said the shelters were not clean or healthy, 20 said they are mentally ill or preferred independence and 15 said safety was their No. 1 concern.
At 24, Becky says she has been homeless on and off for most of her life.For weeks, she had been camping along the Cherry Creek trail off Speer Boulevard between Broadway and Lincoln. Police said during the sweep they wanted people to seek shelter since temperatures would drop below freezing that night in late October.
Becky was defiant.“Why go to a shelter that has curfews, rules and too many people when I can make my own shelter?” Becky said.
“If I could get into a place where it was quiet and clean and a place that I could actually lay my head down and not worry about my stuff getting stolen right underneath my nose, then yeah I would love to go inside,” the man said. “I just need a safe awning, somewhere where I don’t have to worry about getting a rock thrown at me, a beer bottle busted over my head.”Safety concerns, worry about thieves and mental health obstacles were the most common reasons why people said they avoid the shelters. Some of them, including Becky, said their PTSD or anxiety kept them from being around crowds of people in enclosed spaces.
The most common complaint against the shelters was cleanliness. Twenty eight people told us they don’t use the shelters because they’re too dirty. Several complained specifically about bed bugs.
The Denver shelters clean on a daily basis, and the Denver Rescue Mission does regular “heat treatments” to kill off any bed bugs. However, shelter director Tracy Brooks says maintaining a clean, bed-bug free environment can be a “battle.”
“You have 300 men in a building over the course of an evening… it may get messy but again, all of our shelters are cleaned everyday,” Brooks said. “We work hard to stay on top of it. It’s a reality of the homeless population.”9Wants to Know analyzed thousands of 911 calls from the Denver Rescue Mission downtown, the Samaritan House, a women’s shelter downtown and the Salvation Army shelter since 2014. In all three of the largest shelters, the 911 calls more than doubled in three years.
Denver police, fire and ambulance records show that, on average, 911 received 17 calls per day in 2016 from the Denver Rescue Mission. That’s up from about 11 calls per day in 2015 and eight calls per day on average in 2014.
Most of the 911 calls are related to medical issues, including breathing problems, chest pains and convulsions. At least 392 calls were related to assaults, fights and sexual assaults in 2016 - averaging more than one per day in the Denver Rescue Mission shelters downtown.At the Samaritan House, the women’s shelter across the street from the Denver Rescue Mission, 911 calls for service also doubled from 2014 to 2016.