As metro area shelters open, experts and activists argue that only opening them in extreme temperatures isn't enough.

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Extreme cold weather expected in the Denver metro area for this week — down to -40 degrees with wind chill from one estimate by the National Weather Service of Denver/Boulder — has prompted the metro area to open various cold weather emergency shelters for the unhoused to come inside. 

While these short-term emergency shelters will help to protect those who are experiencing homelessness in this extreme cold, activists and medical professionals argue these shelters take too extreme of weather to open, with cities and shelter directors saying the weather is not life-threatening otherwise, or they don’t have enough volunteers to operate more often.

It is unclear whether the safety net can catch all those who need shelter — and whether it exists adequately in some parts of the metro area. Denver and Douglas County officials noted that providing shelter in severe weather is a matter of saving lives.

At least 263 unhoused individuals died in the Denver metro area from Nov. 1, 2021, to Oct. 31, 2022, according to a report by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Some died of “environmental exposure,” and many of the deaths occurred outdoors.

The deaths are “a reminder of how important our efforts are,” Britta Fisher, a top Denver homelessness and housing official, said during a Dec. 21 news conference. 

Emergency shelters and warming centers

Throughout the metro area there are short-term overnight shelters — such as Comitis Crisis Center in Aurora — which host people experiencing homelessness overnight and often close during the day. During extreme weather, there also are emergency shelters that open.

These emergency shelters in the metro area are generally overnight only, like the Severe Weather Shelter Network across Jefferson County, which open at specific temperature cutoffs. Public buildings such as recreation centers and libraries often open as warming centers as well, but only during the day.

Some advocates, like Mutual Aid Monday and Denver Homeless Out Loud, have pushed against these warming centers closing for the night as it forces people into the cold who may not feel comfortable with shelter options — due to possible stealing of their belongings or otherwise — or who may have been kicked out of shelters before. The groups hosted a sit-in at Carla Madison Recreation Center, which was being used as a warming center at the time, in an east Denver protest in March.

The need for these emergency shelters comes from an expected influx of people looking for shelter during the cold weather more than typically seen, according to Sabrina Allie, the communications and engagement director for Denver’s Department of Housing Stability. For Denver, this only happens when the regular shelter system exceeds capacity and their weather thresholds are met, she explained.

The Metro area’s plan for the week

Denver announced Dec. 19 that the city would be opening the Denver Coliseum in preparation for the extreme temperatures expected this week. Allie elaborated that it would stay open 24 hours until Dec. 24, when the city will reevaluate the temperature and decide whether to stay open longer. The Coliseum opening is not because the city’s shelter system is full, she explained, but because it’s meant to hold anyone who needs it, such as any of the 1,500 migrants from out of state who have been served by the city from Dec. 9 to Dec. 22, and in case of a power outage in the neighborhoods.

A team of about three dozen people was driving around Denver searching for unhoused individuals and driving them to shelter and warming centers, including the Denver Coliseum, on Dec. 21. The city is also taking people to the Downtown Denver YMCA.

“Our teams typically conduct outreach during the daytime. However, during severe weather events, outreach teams also deploy during evening hours,” the city said in a statement.

The city’s outreach team — running from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the week’s extreme cold-weather days — was to continue taking people from around Denver to the warming centers on Dec. 22 and 23.

The rest of the metro area has similarly opened emergency shelter systems for the week.

The volunteer-run Severe Weather Shelter Network, which services Jefferson County along with Englewood and Littleton, is expected to approach capacity across its three churches and combined 120 available spaces according to Executive Director of Development Lynn Ann Huizingh. The network opens only for extreme cold weather, opening for 17 nights so far this season and servicing over 250 individuals, Huizingh said.

Guests must register beforehand, pass a background check and then reserve a spot over the phone, online or in person at one of the three locations. People must arrive before 6 p.m. and leave by 7 a.m. the next morning.

Emma Knight, the manager of homelessness for Aurora’s Division of Housing and Community Services, explained that the division also has activated its emergency weather shelters, utilizing the Aurora Day Resource Center and Comitis Crisis Center. The Resource Center will be open for overnight stays and capable of holding about 186 people, she said, getting about 80 the last few weeks.

“That’s what we’re getting on a normal cold weather activation, and with this extreme cold, I think that’s going to be at capacity,” she explained. The Colfax Community Network will also be opening and operating as a day-time warming center, with transport being offered to the other shelters for overnight.

Various homeless navigators and outreach teams will reach out to people on the street this week as well. 

The Aurora cold weather outreach team goes out at 20 degrees, a coalition of Aurora Police Department officers, fire rescue, an outreach worker and a mental health profession according to Knight. The group informs unhoused people of where they can find shelter and facilitates transport, with outreach teams in Denver out already and acting similarly, according to Allie.

“We are actively trying to call everyone in the community, speak with any individual who is unsheltered to try and figure out a plan for them,” said Rebekah Raudabaugh, the homeless navigator for the city of Wheat Ridge about its outreach. “Whether they are going to access the severe weather shelter network, if they aren’t able to access it because they are ineligible or if they have a pet, try and figure out what resource we can use to get them indoors, and then also talk to folks about severe weather overflow shelters in Denver.”

Raudabaugh mentioned pets, as the Network for Jeffco does not allow pets inside, and requires a background check and no more possessions than fit in the individual’s lap. She elaborated that Foothills Animal Shelter in Lakewood will host pets over cold weather emergencies so people experiencing homelessness can take advantage of the Network.

Wheat Ridge, through its communications and engagement manager Amanda Harrison, refused to elaborate on what other options there were for unhoused people in Wheat Ridge if separating from their pet was not an option and they weren’t able to enter the Network — an occurrence both Harrison and Huizingh said was rare.

“We want to make sure our police department has an array of things to be able to choose from, that way they have the autonomy to make an independent decision at the time, given the specific situation,” Harrison said. “They have things they can pull from, and we want them to feel comfortable in doing so, without specifically identifying them.”

Down south, Douglas County’s Homeless Engagement, Assistance and Resource Team of specialists who assist law enforcement in responding to homelessness were “patrolling Douglas County all day” seeking unsheltered people to provide assistance before temperatures dropped to an unsafe level, county spokesperson Wendy Holmes said.

“HEART will be patrolling throughout this weather event to help the unsheltered access safe shelter,” Holmes said.

The Winter Shelter Network, an organization of churches that serves Douglas County women and children experiencing homelessness, does not officially open until Jan. 1. But some of the county’s partners in that network have offered to help during the cold snap, and HEART is providing access to shelter to everyone the team encounters, including men, Holmes said.

Adams County spokespersons and the county Human Services Department did not respond for comment about what programs offer shelter in extreme cold weather in the county and how officials are responding to the cold snap.

The Effects of Cold Weather

Within October and November alone, 54 unhoused people have been treated for cold weather-related injuries, including frostbite, by Denver Health and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, according to a joint letter by doctors from the two organizations.

They argued in the letter, sent Dec. 12 and addressed to Denver’s Department of Housing Stability and Department of Public Health and Environment, that the temperature necessary for activating cold weather emergency shelters is too low, as “individuals experiencing homelessness still face too many medical risks of cold weather exposure.”

“Hypothermia and frostbite may develop in minutes and often occur in the setting of risk factors for heat loss or decreased heat production including pre-existing medical conditions, exhaustion, dehydration, substance use and malnutrition, all of which are common among people experiencing homelessness,” they said in the letter, pointing out this can happen even at 45 degrees depending on wind and moisture.

The doctors are focusing on Denver’s as the city’s weather cutoff for opening extended emergency shelter options is 10 degrees or 6 inches of snow, among the most restrictive of the metro area. According to Allie, the city council has asked DDPHE, which created the cutoff, to revisit these regulations, and they have committed to doing so.

The origin and reasoning for these cutoffs across the metro area vary from asking survivalists what the human body can endure, to simply not knowing at all.

“The whole idea is what temperatures are considered life-threatening,” said Huizingh in regards to the Severe Weather Shelter Network’s cutoffs. Their network went to survivalist groups, local outdoor specialists and EMTs asking when temperatures reach a life-threatening level, she explained, and landed on 32 degrees with moisture like snow, and 20 degrees without.

Huizingh said much of the Network’s hours of operation and capacity are limited by the number of volunteers, but that the system probably wouldn’t change their temperature limit — leading them to be open more winter days — even if they had more volunteers.

“We do not want to enable, we want to empower,” she explained. “We do the best we can to provide some good relational development, but we also want to encourage people to pursue answers that would lead them off the street, and if they get too comfortable, they just don’t have any reason to try and pursue anything else.”

Aurora’s limit of 32 degrees with moisture or wind for their emergency shelters and warming centers comes partially from limited resources, according to Knight. When asked what the basis was for the temperature initially, she said she was unsure.

The Network and Aurora’s emergency weather shelter group, utilizing the Aurora Day Resource Center and Comitis Crisis Center, both match the desired temperature cutoffs of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Cathy Alderman, the Coalition’s chief communications and public policy officer, said they’ve also advocated for the halting of street sweeps during extreme weather.

“We have also advocated with other partners for the City to halt sweeps any time the weather indicates freezing temperatures since it can be extremely dangerous for people to lose their survival gear (tents, blankets, clothing, etc) when there are freezing conditions,” she said.

Knight explained that it’s already Aurora’s policy to halt encampment sweeps during extremely cold weather.

The entire metro area will open warming centers and extreme weather shelters as temperatures dip into the negatives this week, but moving forward, it continues to be unclear if area shelters will change temperature requirements to avoid cold weather injuries, which can just as easily occur in positive 45 degree weather.

Colorado Community Media Senior Reporter Ellis Arnold contributed to this report.

cold weather, unhoused population, resources, shelter, warming centers, homeless, Denver, Colorado

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