As the temperature hovered in the teens before dropping into single digits on March 10, homeless rights advocates staged a sit-in inside the Carla Madison Recreation Center at 2401 East Colfax Avenue.
“It should be a 24-hour resource, that’s a no-brainer,” said Jess Wiederholt, a member of Mutual Aid Monday, the homeless rights group that organized the action. Wiederholt and dozens of others, including at least five homeless people, began filtering into the recreation center at 8 p.m. The center, named after Carla Madison, a Denver City Council member who died in 2011, is open during the day but closed at 9 p.m.; Wiederholt and the other attorneys remained in the lobby even after staff members told them the building was closing for the night.
Advocates wanted to draw attention to their argument that the city’s recreation centers should remain open at night in cold weather. Shelters are full, they say, and not everyone feels comfortable or able to stay in a shelter. Recreation centers would provide some protection.
“Some of them have been kicked out of all the shelters. He or she is out tonight in this gloomy weather,” said Jerry Burton, a longtime Denver homeless rights advocate. “It’s the night that counts. We kick people out.”
About seven Denver police officers showed up after 10 p.m. and told the group they would work to secure beds for the homeless and that anyone who remained in the building would eventually be arrested for trespassing.
Denver Homeless Out Loud’s Ana Cornelius, Wiederholt and Kelsang Virya, another homeless rights advocate, negotiated with officers, saying the five people looking for beds weren’t interested in entering the shelters, but wanted motel vouchers instead. Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who attended a community meeting in the center and showed up at the protest, stayed for the sit-in; she also negotiated with the police.
In the end, the defenders were able to secure six motel vouchers for the homeless, and no one was arrested when the action was over.
“I asked DPD to work to accommodate community members without accommodation in shelters, or if there were special cases like vulnerable adults or those who could not be accommodated to use hotel vouchers I appreciate that Ana Cornelius also called me DPD worked with Ana and community members to de-escalate the situation and come to a peaceful conclusion, where all people were placed in hotels for the night. DPD will pass on the information for those who have been accommodated this evening at [the Department of Housing Stability, or HOST] follow up in the morning,” said Armando Saldate, executive director of the Ministry of Public Security.
“We know that inclement weather poses a serious danger to those who stay outdoors,” HOST’s Sabrina Allie said the morning after the sit-in. “We have capacity for homeless people in our shelters, and we are encouraging people to come inside. Last night there were over sixty beds available, with additional overflow capacity if needed. shelters are lifted during severe weather events, except in cases where someone has been violent.We reached out to Denver Homeless Out Loud and Mutual Aid on Monday, and hope to further discuss the concerns they raised last night.
Going forward, the advocates who organized the sit-in want the city of Denver to open emergency overnight shelters at recreation centers during extremely cold nights.
“The reality is that the existing shelters are not accessible or functional for the countless homeless people,” Wiederholt said during the sit-in.