Shelters remind Coloradans to think of unhoused neighbors in extreme heat

DENVER — As summer settles into mid-July Colorado is experiencing several days at a time reaching 90+ degree Fahrenheit temperatures. While we all try to stay safe, the impact of extreme heat greatly impacts the most vulnerable which often times includes those experiencing homelessness.

“Hot temperatures lead to dehydration, and dehydration exacerbates everything,” said Benjamin Dunning, who is with Denver Homeless Out Loud, an advocacy group for people experiencing homelessness.

“The effects [of excessive heat] typically exacerbate things that would normally be minor in a person’s life that they manage, health-wise, and would turn them into points of crisis,” Dunning said.

Rocky Mountain PBS spoke to a few of the Denver-area shelters that provide support for unhoused neighbors about the impact and the efforts to give everyone security, safety and dignity.

Denver Rescue Mission’s shelter at Lawrence St. and Park Ave. in Denver.

Denver Rescue Mission

As one of the oldest nonprofit shelters in the Denver area, Denver Rescue Mission provides immediate shelter for those experiencing homelessness. It has three shelters — one in downtown Denver, one in Fort Collins and one with the City of Denver in the northern part of the city. All focus on providing those immediate needs for people without stable housing, especially during times like these.

“Extreme weather conditions affect our population and guests who come to Denver Rescue Mission, of course, because they are outdoors a lot and often moving around to different locations and things like that,” said Alexxa Gagner, the director of marketing and communications for the organization.

She said it is lucky that so far the organization hasn’t had anyone come into their facilities with extreme heat exhaustion or stroke, who needed medical attention. During the summer and winter when conditions are especially tough outside, the shelters are open outside of meal time to allow people to come inside and get relief from the heat.

“Just plenty of water available to guess as they’re coming in, just to help with that hydration,” said Gagner. “We have shower showers available at both of our shelter locations … that’s probably another thing that just so a cool down in a shower could potentially help.”

While the Denver Rescue Mission doesn’t have a street outreach team, Gagner said staff often go to people who are outside nearby to check on them and hope to make a connection because that’s the ultimate goal for the organization.

“We really do always encourage people to come inside and have that, you know, safe place to be but also to connect,” said Gagner.

Gagner said the organization also hopes that Coloradans overall can look at those experiencing homelessness with respect and dignity and to keep them in mind when extreme temperatures hit our state.

“I think knowing that, you know, the heat can really can really can really affect someone’s the rest of what they’re going through,” said Gagner. “So whether it’s even a mental health situation or an addiction, or just even just health issues, you know, the heat can exacerbate that just like the cold can.”

The Salvation Army provides a number of resources in the Denver Metro area including shelters for those who are unhoused. 

Salvation Army

The Salvation Army has one of the largest shelters in the metro area available for single men, Crossroads, which is a low-barrier shelter open all the time serving 300 men every night. The Salvation Army also operates a family emergency shelter called Lambuth Family Center. Outside those two main shelters, the Salvation Army also runs a variety of other types of transitional housing including safe outdoor spaces and hotel rooms. Right now, the organization hasn’t seen any reports of heat exhaustion at their facilities and hopes to keep it that way.

“We also work hard at keeping people hydrated and educated about staying, you know, undercover and well hydrated,” said Kristen Baluyot, the Denver Metro social services director for the Salvation Army.

Rocks placed along the sidewalk in downtown Denver.

In several spots in downtown Denver shaded areas with trees are blocked off with what could be considered anti-homeless measures like rocks or fencing. Still, those who are living outside are trying to find what they can to stay cool. For Baluyot and the Salvation Army, the hope is to get people to come inside and connected to services.

“Our unhoused neighbors are among the most vulnerable people in our community, especially in times of cold weather or extreme heat,” said Baluyot. “If our housed neighbors can encourage our unhoused neighbors to go to shelter, or even if they hand a water bottle to somebody that’s a very thoughtful thing. Whatever people can do to help nicely encourage people to go to shelter just because of the heat … that can help save lives.”

In particular, Baluyot worries about families who are experiencing homelessness. She said often times they are living in their cars which can become very dangerous places in extreme heat and believes there aren’t enough shelters who cater to families in the area.

For the community, the Salvation Army is a place that could always use volunteers with a variety of services and properties Baluyot encourages everyone to get involved if they can’t … it isn’t as scary as it may seem.

“People who are experiencing homelessness are, you know, just normal human beings like you and I, they just happen to not have a house,” said Baluyot. “I personally find every moment I’m in a shelter to be wonderful as far as the experiences that I personally have.”

Samaritan House is operated by the Catholic Charities of Denver and focuses on helping single men, women and families.

Catholic Charities of Denver

“We’re prepared for big snow storms and blizzards and subzero temperatures. We’ve been a shelter for people experiencing homelessness for many, many years. So, it is Denver. It is the summertime. It is normal to have record heat. So here we are,” said Mike Sinnett, the vice president of shelters for Catholic Charities Denver.

Catholic Charities Denver has four shelters in the Denver metro area, two of which are primarily set for single women. The Samaritan House in downtown Denver serves single men, women and families. The shelters offer similar resources to the others … meals, a place to stay and information on what might help them transition to permanent housing.

So far this summer, Sinnett said no one at one of their locations has suffered heat stroke this summer but he knows this is something to really watch out for and works closely with the other shelters during these times.

“We try to make sure that everybody knows what we’re doing with regard to being reactive to what’s going on with the weather, whether it’s winter time or the heat of summer, like we’re experiencing right now,” said Sinnett.

The City of Denver does open cooling locations on days with extreme heat, most of those locations are libraries and recreational centers. Often transportation or making sure the people who need that information can present a challenge.

Catholic Charities of Denver is one of the organizations that has a people on the streets looking out for those experiencing homelessness and trying to connect with them and provide immediate needs like water. It has two peer navigators that work with Urban Peak and St. Francis Center to provide a street outreach team.

Sinnett also said the community can be a big part of the help for unhoused neighbors and suggests reaching out if you see someone who seems in need.

“I think if you encounter someone that’s experiencing homelessness, just ask them how they’re doing. Do they need a bottle of water? Do they need a referral to the resources? Remind them where the shelter’s located so that they can get out of the heat. Watch for behavior that demonstrates heat exhaustion, or maybe even heat stroke,” Sinnett suggested.

Mile High Behavioral Healthcare’s street outreach team in Aurora checks on people living in encampments. 

Mile High Behavioral Healthcare’s Street Outreach Team in Aurora

In Aurora, the challenges of heat on those experiencing homelessness hit differently than in Denver. The city is geographically more spread out and has fewer cooling locations for days with extreme heat.

Mile High Behavioral Healthcare‘s street outreach team tries its best to help tackle that transportation barrier. With two different vans, the team travels around five days a week to encampments to provides some small resources but mostly to make connections.

“We are trying our best to get out there and try to connect with as many people as possible, as many ways as we can,” said Jason Goertz, who is the team lead of volunteers and street outreach.

Each time the team goes out in this heat they are able to offer water and popsicles to those they meet and let them know that theAurora Day Resource Center is one of the cooling locations when the City of Aurora activates emergency cooling stations. Goertz said this information is put out through the Mile High Behavioral Healthcare Text Line (text “Warmup” to 313131) and through flyers printed by the city.

“So that was initially created for our cold weather activations, but we do the same thing when it’s especially hot … like, ‘Hey, we’re expecting a heat wave, stay cool, stay hydrated. Here are places that you can go,'” Goertz explained.

The street outreach team can also take someone in the van to where they want to go within the city, so if they have an appointment or want to go to a cooling location and get away from the heat, this team is able to do that. And anyone in the community can alert this team to check on people through the city’s website. Goertz, like the others who work to help our unhoused neighbors, really encourages the community to see those experiencing homelessness as people who just need a little help.

“If you see someone that needs something, offer them some water, offer them some Chapstick, offer them some sunscreen, see if they need anything,” Goertz said. “People can often think about the cold weather and what are people doing … and they need somewhere warm, but the same is really true for those really, really hot days. People die of heat stroke. So we just wanna make sure that people are taken care of for the best of our ability.”

[Related: ‘Trust and hope’: The Aurora street outreach team’s most important resources]

Urban Peak

For Urban Peak, a shelter which serves youth experiencing homelessness, the summer not only presents a problem with extreme heat but also with connecting to who they are serving. Often relying on schools and higher education institutions to create that bridge between young people who are unhoused and resources, the summer breaks that connection.

“So it’s a little bit of the one, two punch between, you know, hot weather and some of those systems that are young people engaged with not being active,” said Christina Carlson, the CEO of Urban Peak.

Urban Peak has five locations with three of those being apartment buildings. Carlson said currently there are about 140 youth in their housing. Their drop-in center in downtown Denver is equipped with laundry, showers, social-emotional activities and a number of other resources. No matter the time of year, Carlson said they focus on getting know each youth they serve.

“All of our work is trauma informed and based around building those relationships through case management so that you can exit this system and the experiences of being unhoused and homelessness,” Carlson explained.

On top of their locations, Urban Peak also has a street outreach team that try to connect with youth during the day and at night to make sure people are staying safe. Now during this heat, those staff members are bringing water bottles, sunscreen, and extra clean clothes. And again they hope with every person they hand water too builds a bond that will help them out of homelessness.

Carlson hopes that message truly resonates with everyone in our communities to build relationships. Whether it’s a water bottle handed out or just acknowledgement of those who are unhoused, she believes building compassion and empathy is the only way to truly make change.

“Sometimes we find that like, ‘Well, what are they doing? Why aren’t they doing this? You know, people are camping or they’re using drugs or whatever the narrative is,” said Carlson. “Instead of ‘What’s wrong with you?’ How do we think in a way like, ‘What’s happened to you?’ And what does that look like as a community?”

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