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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

DENVER — Mayor Mike Johnston says he raised concerns with the Salvation Army about security at a northeast Denver hotel-turned-homeless shelter the organization runs for the city in early December, on the first day residents moved in.

But for more than three months, those concerns went unaddressed, Johnston told The Denver Post. Then, on March 16, Dustin Nunn, 38, and Sandra Cervantes, 43, who were living in the former DoubleTree at 4040 N. Quebec St., were fatally shot in an incident that hasn’t resulted in any arrests. Eleven days later, another person was shot, this time surviving.

The shootings stand out as the most visceral and highly publicized crimes to take place in any of the shelter sites that make up the backbone of Johnston’s All In Mile High homelessness initiative. They turned a spotlight on safety and spurred city officials to step in and ramp up security measures at the hotel — while drawing attention to the Salvation Army’s failure to tap into an $800,000 allocation for security in its $10 million contract to operate that shelter.

The Post found in a review of Denver police and fire call logs that the initiative’s network of five hotels has demanded significant attention from the city’s safety agencies in recent months. Between Jan. 1 and March 17 — the day after Cervantes and Nunn were killed — police logged 955 calls for service that came in from the city’s five hotel shelters, according to records provided by the Denver Police Department.

That’s more than 12 calls per day over that time frame, with just over half initiated by police officers themselves, rather than 911 calls.

The former DoubleTree, the largest shelter in the city’s portfolio with 289 rooms, made up the lion’s share of that volume, with 465 calls for service, or roughly six per day.

Meanwhile, the Denver Fire Department, which often responds to medical reports, logged 272 calls for service to the five hotel shelters between Jan. 1 and March 12, according to records requested by The Post — or nearly four per day. Again, the former DoubleTree led the way, with 150 of those calls.

The security situation there prompted Mary Anna Thompson, an advocate for the homeless who was formerly homeless herself, to describe the facility as a “warzone” during a City Council public comment session this month.

“I guess houseless people’s lives don’t matter,” she said.

City officials have rushed to shore up security as Johnston’s initiative, launched after he took office in July, has grown. Besides the hotels, which were contracted out to three operators, it now includes the more recent additions of three micro-community sites, each with five dozen or fewer temporary housing units.

The program, formerly called the “House 1,000” initiative, has moved 1,447 people indoors as of Friday. Of that number, 863 people still were staying in city-provided shelter space, 418 are in more permanent housing and 166 were listed with other outcomes, including 83 who returned to unsheltered homelessness.

Despite the high call volumes and rhetoric around the All In Mile High initiative, city leaders and their partners at the Salvation Army are sticking to a core message: The shelters are significantly safer than living on the street.

In the eyes of freshly reappointed Police Chief Ron Thomas, the program allows his department to deliver better service to people experiencing homelessness and other city residents alike.

“Not only are we able to provide these individuals the services that they desperately need inside of these facilities,” Thomas said in interview, “but instead of responding to thousands of encampment calls across the city year after year, we are now able to better divide our workload and be much more responsive to other challenges in the city.”

Thomas’ assertion is bolstered by another set of call data DPD shared with The Post. Across 11 former encampment locations around the city, the department says it fielded 745 calls for service combined in the 30 days before each was closed and residents were moved indoors.

In the 30 days immediately after city crews shut down each site, those 11 properties generated a combined 481 calls for service — a decrease of more than 35%, with some seeing calls drop by significantly more.

Mayor: “We’ve become less flexible now” on security

In the aftermath of the violence at the former DoubleTree, the city rushed to install a raft of security measures. Johnston said his administration’s mindset was to err on the side of safety, even if the initial approach to standing up the city’s greatly expanded shelter network was to make access as low-barrier as possible.

“I think we were more open to providers’ theories on how they wanted to run these sites in the early stages,” Johnston said last week during a meeting with journalists at The Post. “We’ve become less flexible now about what we think we owe to people in terms of basic security, and the DoubleTree is the best example of that.”

Maj. Nesan Kistan, the Salvation Army’s divisional commander based in Denver, has defended the nonprofit’s approach to safety at the DoubleTree facility, which the organization now calls The Aspen.

He invites critics to come see how the shelter operates for themselves.

“You’re welcome to be a short-term resident in one of our facilities and see firsthand that people are treated with dignity — people are treated with love, with care,” he said. “And yes, overarchingly, people are safer in our facilities than on the streets.”

Still, officials with the city and the Salvation Army acknowledged that The Aspen’s multiple entrances and exits had posed a known safety risk at the facility.

The mayor’s office expected the nonprofit to hire private security to address that problem, according to Cole Chandler, Johnston’s top homelessness adviser. Last month, the two partners began to have discussions about the city stepping in to take the lead on that missing piece, Chandler said.

The double homicide happened before those steps could be taken.

In the days after the shooting, the city brought in a security firm and placed guards at all seven of the building’s exterior doors, closing six of them entirely to create a single point of entry and exit. The administration also began requiring residents to carry identification badges to come in the building’s front door, installed metal detectors there and added more security cameras in the corridors.

“Now we know (that) who’s coming in the building is our neighbors,” said Eugene Braziel, 65, a resident since the hotel shelter opened. “We don’t have to worry about intruders. They can’t come in the doors.”

He and Brittany Goodrich arrived at the shelter on Dec. 7. The couple had been spending cold winter nights in a tent as part of a multiblock encampment that circled the downtown post office at 20th and Curtis streets last year.


They said during The Post’s visit to the shelter last week that they were trying to make the most of the opportunities afforded by the stability of a private hotel room to call their own. Both are working to obtain replacement birth certificates. They said they hoped to play an active role in finding suitable permanent housing, not to have it delivered to them.

And Braziel said he was looking forward to starting an addiction treatment class to help him in his struggle with alcohol. Goodrich, 32, also hoped to receive support for alcohol after going through a program for opioid use that helped her, though she said widespread substance use among other residents had made her sobriety goals more challenging.

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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