May 9, 2012
As the debate surrounding the urban camping ban has escalated over the past several weeks, we have scrambled to prepare for how it will affect the women our organizations serve. And now that the ordinance has progressed through City Council, we urge officials to develop concrete plans to expand resources as soon as possible for those most vulnerable — particularly women — whose most basic safety needs remain unmet.
Just last week Leslie Foster — who is president and CEO of The Gathering Place in Denver — arrived work at 7:30 a.m. and found two women sitting outside. When she began a conversation with them, they told her they had been on the street the night before and that one of them had been beaten and raped during the night. While the three waited on the police and medical assistance to arrive, Leslie learned that both women had significant health and mental health issues — for which no immediate services were available — and that they had wound up on the streets when their motel vouchers ran out.
As we reflect on their painful experience, we have to ask, “What if, on top of everything else, these women had received a ticket for sleeping on the street?” Now they’d have a fine to pay and would have a record that makes receiving services and obtaining housing more difficult than it was before.
At last count, there were approximately 400 unaccompanied homeless women in Denver on any given night. For these individuals, there are 158 designated shelter beds. During the winter, 50 additional beds were added through The Delores Project, New Jerusalem Baptist Church, and the Capitol Hill United Ministries network.
Even if those additional spaces remain available, these numbers show that, at best, we can offer shelter to half of the women in our city who are facing a night on the streets. And while the city allocated $75,000 for 200 more shelter beds for men, efforts to create more space for women have been focused on cobbling together a network of churches to open their doors to serve as temporary overnight shelters.
While we respect and appreciate any church willing to take on such a responsibility, this is simply not a sustainable solution. Transportation remains a barrier in the current system. Church volunteers need training and support to maintain a safe and welcoming environment for the overnight guests in their buildings. Funding, of course, is another issue altogether.
The lack of alternatives exposes another unpleasant truth: Though sleeping on the streets is undesirable, for some of these women, the street is not the worst place they could be spending the night.
None of us would advocate that those we serve “camp,” but, when no other options are available, a night on the street is better than a night in a crack house. With no alternatives, a night on the street is better than a night of prostitution. And, when all the shelter beds are full, a night on the street is better than another night spent being beaten by an abuser.
But, with no shelter available and an ordinance in place that threatens citations, women for whom the street is the only option may choose to stay in these horrific situations or hide in riskier locations to escape them.
The problem here isn’t that business owners and community members don’t want individuals living or sleeping on the streets of our city. We don’t want those we serve to live or sleep on the streets either.
The problem is that the urban camping ban is not a solution, but merely an illusion of one. Without additional shelter beds and much needed health, mental health, and basic needs services, the homeless women in Denver will simply be pushed further into the shadows. Perhaps the general public won’t see them anymore, but organizations like ours will be painfully aware that they are still there and still homeless.
Leslie Foster is president and CEO of The Gathering Place in Denver.Terrell Curtis is executive director of The Delores Project in Denver.
Victoria McVicker is is CEO of the SafeHouse in Denver.