Denver closing Rodeway Inn homeless shelter; residents are scrambling

The Rodeway Inn homeless shelter was the first space Laura Lindquist felt like she had somewhere her own to lay her head at night. It was the first place she didn’t fear her things being stolen. The first place she felt secure enough to start acquiring belongings to care about.

Now, Lindquist, 45, must reckon with the possibility of getting dumped back onto Denver’s streets after the city-owned shelter serving women, transgender and non-binary guests recently announced its Aug. 23 closure, which will displace the nearly 70 residents and more than 30 staff members who live and work in the defunct Federal Boulevard hotel.

“We’ve all been through so much already, and this is trauma all over again,” Lindquist said. “What are our options?”

The Denver Housing Authority bought the former hotel for $11.1 million in May 2020 and leased it to the city for $10 a year to become an emergency non-congregate homeless shelter — meaning the hotel rooms function as residents’ private rooms — to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 during the height of the pandemic.

Three years later, though, concerns about the property have led to the decision to sell the building, said Sabrina Allie, communications and engagement director for the city’s Department of Housing Stability. The city has budgeted for the purchase of two other hotels to serve as non-congregate shelters, Allie said, but the timing won’t line up to allow residents of the Rodeway Inn to move into one of those properties.

“The Denver Department of Housing Stability and our operational partners, the Salvation Army and the Gathering Place, are working together to determine the most viable and stabilizing options for transitioning guests prior to the closure,” Allie said in a statement to The Denver Post. “We recognize that this transition is a difficult one, and we’re working diligently with our partners to find the best possible outcomes for all of our guests.”

The Department of Housing Stability has a contract in place providing up to $2.75 million annually to operate the shelter program at the Rodeway Inn. The city is also incurring facility maintenance costs, and partnered with nonprofits including the Gathering Place and Salvation Army to provide staff and operate the shelter.

What shelter providers learned, Gathering Place CEO Megan Devenport said, was that the non-congregate model resulted in better outcomes for residents.

“People are better able to regain independence and are more likely to transition to long-term affordable housing,” Gathering Place officials wrote in a public post about the closure. “The non-congregate model is now considered best practice.”

That model helped 114 guests reach stable, long-term housing during the Rodeway Inn’s three years as a shelter, according to Gathering Place.

The Denver Housing Authority is now “considering options for repurposing the site and reinvesting those funds into high quality, permanent supportive housing,” Allie said.

Residents and workers at the shelter said they understood the dilapidated, defunct hotel was not a permanent housing solution, but they did not expect a gap in services that would displace them.

“The overarching mood is one of uncertainty, anxiety and a little bit of resignation,” Devenport said. “A lot of folks who live there have gone through things like this before. Some of the most heartbreaking comments I’ve heard are that this is no surprise. That it was too good to last. They’re used to getting kicked out of places.”

The Gathering Place learned about the city’s closure plans in May and immediately informed residents, Devenport said. In the past week, she said significant progress has been made connecting residents to other housing options — about 60% of the 70 residents have found somewhere to go — but that concerns remain about where the rest of the people will live and whether there is enough time to get everyone housed safely.

“We are disappointed that the city and county of Denver has chosen to discontinue a needed, and proven successful, shelter model,” Devenport said.

“City has let us down”

Olivia Demir, a transgender woman who has lived at the shelter since February, said she finally was getting her life on track at the Rodeway Inn.

The individual rooms provided Demir a place to transition in peace and avoid the transphobic harassment she often faced at other shelters. Demir said she felt safe around the other women and staff, who Devenport said are trained in trauma-informed care and working with the LGBTQ community.

With the shelter’s help, Demir adopted a cat named Olive, who comforts the 53-year-old in times of distress.

“I was fixing my life and then I learned about the closure and everything went upside down,” Demir said. “I can’t stop having nightmares about going back to the streets. I fear I have to pretend to be male again for my safety. What’s going to happen to my cat? When I lose this place, I might as well be dead.”

Demir is now receiving therapy and medical care for suicidal ideations, she said.

Residents and staff acknowledged the Rodeway Inn had its share of maintenance problems. The building is old, Devenport said, with ongoing plumbing issues and a run-down facade.

But as residents popped in and out of a makeshift library and meeting room at the Rodeway Inn stocked with computers, books, face masks, hand sanitizer, a bathroom and access to the opioid-overdose antidote naloxone, it was clear this shelter had done something unique.

“In this crappy old building with the plumbing issues, the people who live here have made a community and the staff have made a community, and it’s really special,” Devenport said.

Angela Browne, 58, said residents are begging the city to provide them with options or some communication about what’s going on.

Browne said many women at the shelter, including herself, fled domestic violence and suffer from physical or mental disabilities, or medical problems that impede full-time employment.

“We feel the city has let us down, and we’re scrambling,” Browne said. “They gave me a list of shelters. I’m on every list waiting for housing. This is a slam in all of our faces. I’ve lost three places waiting for DHA to give me a housing voucher that hasn’t come. We feel safer here, but the city is our landlord and they closed us down. We are so grateful for this place. All we are asking is to be placed in our communities and survive.”

What it takes to find housing

Devenport said the Gathering Place has three immediate asks of the city.

  • Allocate — along with the state and the housing authority — enough resources for soon-to-be-displaced residents to become housed and ensure the housing is stable
  • Commit to serving women, transgender people and non-binary people, specifically, in a future non-congregate setting
  • Work more systemically long-term to address how shelters can better serve the most marginalized people, including women, transgender people and non-binary people

Allie confirmed Denver is committed to additional non-congregate shelters and said the city found the model to be successful.

In the meantime, Devenport said the city has allowed the Salvation Army to bring in three additional housing navigators to help residents find new places to live.

A team of people is focused on helping residents retrieve “vital documents” like IDs and Social Security cards that are often difficult for people experiencing homelessness to receive due to their lack of a permanent address yet are often required in establishing a permanent residence.

Residents have grown attached to the shelter that allows pets and doesn’t make residents participate in addiction recovery in order to seek shelter there — both rarities in shelter experiences, Devenport said.

The CEO was heartbroken when she heard guests who have become accustomed to bathroom access ask her if they will be given diapers before they’re sent back to the streets.

“That is unacceptable to me,” Devenport said.

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