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Denver City Council considers cold weather policy changes for sheltering unhoused residents

The proposal would ban tent removals during freezing weather and direct city shelters to open when the temperature dips to or below freezing.
Denver Coliseum
Posted at 5:33 PM, Nov 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-27 22:54:50-05

DENVER — With overnight temperatures predicted to drop below freezing this week, there are growing calls for the City of Denver to do more to protect the unhoused.

Denver City Council Members Sarah Parady and Shontel Lewis are crafting an ordinance they say would protect people experiencing homelessness.

The proposal would prohibit city officials and law enforcement from removing shelters or tents from public areas whenever the outdoor temperature is 32 degrees or below. In addition, it would require city officials to open cold weather shelters whenever the temperature drops to 32 degrees or below.

"I'd like for us to set policy for the city based on medical evidence when we ask people to exit shelters and move during cold temperatures, and for when we will open our warming shelters,” said Parady.

While tents aren’t ideal shelter, especially during the extreme cold, Parady said they are better than nothing and can reduce immediate health risks, such as frostbite.

The city opened emergency cold weather shelters this past weekend when temperatures dipped into the teens. But the shelters were only open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. When the shelters closed, temperatures were still below freezing.

Parady said the current policy for when shelters open is not an ordinance. Instead, the policy is set by the mayor’s office.

That policy directs warming centers to open when existing shelter capacity is exceeded and when temperatures fall below 20 degrees, at least two inches of snow is predicted, or when the National Weather Service issues a wind-chill advisory, warning, or watch. The city’s current policy also states that cold weather shelter is to be “overnight only (not 24/7) unless there is an extenuating circumstance requiring extended operations.”

City officials who were present at Monday’s meeting could not provide a clear explanation as to why the city uses 20 degrees as the threshold for opening cold weather shelters. A representative with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment said the policy was informed by many different agencies providing input.

Council members said they hoped officials from the Johnston administration could provide more answers in the days and weeks ahead as they consider Parady and Lewis’ proposal.

In council testimony last week, a doctor said there was no scientific evidence to support 20 degrees as the threshold for opening shelters. He also noted New York City provides greater access to shelters for its unhoused population whenever temperatures fall below 32 degrees.

Meanwhile, privately run shelters like the St. Francis Center’s day shelter in downtown Denver are seeing more traffic, in large part due to the migrant surge.

“We're seeing numbers at capacity or close to capacity at this time of the season that we don't normally see,” said Andrew Spinks, development director for St. Francis Center.

Spinks said while the shelter wasn’t overcapacity this weekend, it did stay open longer so people could be bused over to the city’s emergency cold weather shelters.

“I think what the city's doing is really a great effort to try and deal with what is a tough situation right now with a lot of folks unhoused outside and we know how dangerous the weather can be,” said Spinks.

Spinks said the day shelter needs men’s coats right now.

“Our greatest need would be men's overcoats because of the migrant surge and so many people coming up from warmer climates, they're ill-prepared for the elements,” said Spinks. “That would go a long way. Gloves would be helpful too.”

Donations could be dropped off at the day center at 2323 Curtis Street in Denver.

As for the outdoor deaths this weekend, Denver Police said the cases remain under investigation.

The Denver Police Department is investigating four outdoor deaths that were reported this past weekend. DDPHE said late Tuesday the four people likely died from a drug overdose and said there was "no definitive signs of hypothermia during autopsy of these cases. However, the cases will not be finalized for several weeks until the final toxicology results are received."

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