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Denver police and first responders have visited hotel shelters hundreds of times. Are they safer than the street?

Joe Rubino, The Denver Post on

Published in News & Features

The couple said they never worried about their safety until after the double homicide. They both knew Cervantes, and her death hit them hard. A month later, with the city’s safety upgrades in place, they are more at ease.

But the instability of residents’ lives often is evident. During the visit by Post journalists on Tuesday, a large amount of blood could be seen on the floor of the main dining area. One of the residents had suffered a ruptured blood vessel in his leg, according to staff.

He was expected to survive after parademics were called. But it’s not hard to imagine how circumstances might have become more dire.

Council members focus on providers

Some homeless advocates and City Council members have been sharply critical of the Salvation Army and its approach to safety.

Councilman Darrell Watson told The Post that he believes the safety precautions that were put in place at the former DoubleTree could have and should have been installed much sooner. It’s a particular concern because the Salvation Army, one of the few organizations equipped for the job, operates three of the five converted hotel sites in the initiative. The others are run by Bayaud Enterprises and the St. Francis Center.

“I am asking the administration to begin identifying other service providers that have the skills and the ability and the size of the Salvation Army to compete for contracts,” Watson said.

Kistan, the Salvation Army leader, said the organization’s lag in lining up security was due to challenges in finding a service that would meet the needs of a group of people who carry substantial trauma — including many who deal with untreated mental health and addiction issues.

“Instead of de-escalating tensions, you could escalate tensions,” Kistan said. “There is already a resistance towards authority — police, security — so we had to manage multiple factors as we navigated a very challenging situation in a very new and unique context and setting, which are the hotels.”

The Salvation Army has a long history of working with Denver’s homeless population. The faith-based organization opened its Crossroads emergency shelter for adult men in the city in 1983.

Its $10 million contract for the former DoubleTree, approved by the City Council in November, allows the nonprofit to seek reimbursement for up to $800,000 in security costs. Now that the city is paying for the security, Chandler said the administration is looking into amending the contract to strip that $800,000 out.

Welfare checks, medical crises, overdoses and crime

For Kistan, the high emergency call volumes at the shelters make perfect sense and come with the territory.


Criminal activity that may have gone unnoticed in street encampments is now happening in a bustling facility with staff members watching. People who previously suffered quietly with serious medical conditions in tents are now in a place where an ambulance is much more likely to be called to assist them if needed, he pointed out.

Police call types to the five hotels this year have ranged from welfare checks and vehicle stops to potentially serious crimes, though just one call was related to reported gunshots — on the day of the double homicide last month.

There were 26 calls to report possible assaults at the hotels over the 11-week period The Post reviewed. One sexual assault was reported. That call came from the Best Western shelter just north of the former DoubleTree, at 4595 N. Quebec St., though an officer was not requested at the scene.

The fire department data showed a wide range of reasons for calls from January through mid-March, including trouble breathing, headaches, animal bites and possible exposure to toxic chemicals.

Of the 272 calls, 22 referenced overdoses, according to The Post’s review. The city is in the midst of an overdose crisis largely driven by the potentially deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.

As for police runs, Thomas, the department’s chief, pointed out that many of the shelter calls were officer-initiated, not responding to members of the public seeking help. That was true of a majority of calls — 518 out of the 955 — in the data The Post reviewed.

He considers that a demonstration of proactive public safety work, made possible by hundreds of people staying at large, centralized shelters rather than scattered in encampments around the city.

When the second, nonfatal shooting occurred in the former DoubleTree on March 27, officers were able to quickly arrest two suspects. That was made possible in part by the upgraded security camera network installed by the city but also thanks to cooperation from residents.

In encampments, Thomas said, officers rarely found cooperative witnesses when investigating crimes.

Despite some tensions over security between city officials and the Salvation Army, the partners have lauded each other and other providers for their willingness to take on the rapid expansion of the city’s shelter system over the last nine months.

“As we’ve all said, we’re building this plane as we fly it,” Kistan said. “Our focus has always been getting people off the streets and then helping them. And so, obviously, attention to security wasn’t always the only factor we were considering. There were multiple things we were managing, all in real time.”


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