Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

DU center to oversee cold weather homeless shelter

DU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL) is working with the City of Denver to operate a shelter for homeless men on the coldest nights of the year. The joint effort is an outgrowth of Denver’s Road Home — the city’s plan to end homelessness within 10 years. 

“This is just one piece of the larger relationship between DU and Denver’s Road Home,” says CCESL Associate Director Katie Symons.

Symons is the principal investigator on a $61,000 grant from Denver Human Services to oversee the shelter, which by day is a loading dock at a city wastewater facility located in an industrial area at 2000 W. 3rd Ave. On bitter cold nights when the temperature falls below 20 degrees and there’s precipitation, it’s a warm, dry, safe place for 60 men to sleep.

Throughout the season, the shelter operates on up to 75 nights. DU has helped with four shelters altogether. This is the third year that DU has helped operate an emergency shelter at this location.

Student involvement

Two DU students who volunteered at the shelter last year are returning to help. They’re on call Dec. 1–April 30 for 10-hour overnight shifts. Additionally, the city has asked for the shelter to be available through August to provide beds for homeless men during the Democratic National Convention.

Valerie Resendez, a student in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology and a paid staffer at the shelter, says she enjoys knowing that she’s making a difference.

“Kindness is not something they [the homeless] generally encounter. They might not receive it elsewhere,” Resendez says, noting that the men are extremely grateful for the smallest act of kindness.

Her coursework is in forensic psychology where, she explains, psychology and law interact. She says it helps her see where clients are coming from in terms of the biological and social factors that make up their coping skills. 

Resendez says she’s drawn to suffering and moved to help. She was an intern at a shelter for victims of domestic violence and currently interns in the Federal Correctional Institute.

“Before, my view was very different. I was much less understanding of domestic violence, homeless and prison populations,” she says. “Now I know that these people are like everyone else. They just had a worse break.”

Joey Scott, a junior philosophy major, will work in the shelter after he returns in January from studying abroad. Along with the two DU students, Ray Maestas (MSW ’98) and four other shelter staff members are also on call.

“Since 2005 we’ve had a steady flow of students who’ve come in for a year or two,” Symons says. “If they’re looking for a way to interact with homeless population or to get an inside look at how a shelter is run, this is a great opportunity.”

Students can’t sleep during their shifts, but they can do homework and read. Paid staff earn $15 per hour. 

How it works

Although the nearest residential housing is six blocks away, the shelter has a community agreement that prohibits walk-ins. Instead, homeless individuals learn about the shelter’s availability from street outreach workers and Denver Rescue Mission staff. 

If they pass the screening — which eliminates anyone who is intoxicated, disruptive or holding weapons  — homeless men can get a seat on a bus to the shelter and a guaranteed bed for the night. The bus transports guests from the Denver Rescue Mission to the shelter and then back in the morning, Symons says.

Staff and volunteers are CPR certified and trained to de-escalate conflicts. Symons says there haven’t been any real problems in the past, but wastewater plant security guards are only 20–30 seconds away should anyone need help. Female workers are paired with males for added security.

Ways to give

The shelter doesn’t provide services; just a cot and blanket. However, donations are welcome. Most needed items include:
•    Socks (new, clean, all sizes)
•    Undershirts (new, clean, all sizes)
•    Underwear (new, clean, all sizes)
•    Gloves
•    Hats

Symons will take clothing donations at Driscoll South, suite 22. On Christmas Eve, she says, the loading dock will temporarily be transformed to provide dinner; volunteers are needed to bring hot, prepared foods.

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