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Rec center should stay open overnight as warming shelter, protesters say

In response, the city said 60 beds were available at shelters Thursday night to provide a warm space for those in need.

DENVER — Dozens protested and sat inside the Carla Madison Recreation Center on East Colfax Avenue Thursday night as temperatures dipped into the single digits.

9NEWS Weatherman Ed Greene said at 10 p.m. when protestors were present it was 3 degrees outside. Those in attendance, either had no place to go or were fighting to provide a place for others to go.

"We are here at the Carla Madison Rec Center because the city is not doing what is needed to protect our unhoused neighbors," said an organizer with Mutual Aid Monday. "So we're forced to remain in this building to keep it open ourselves so all my survive.”

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Protestors showed up before the center closed at 9 p.m. and some staged themselves inside while others were outside with signs. Protesters said the recreation centers are supposed to stay open overnight during freezing temps to provide shelter for Denver’s unhoused community.

“We need a real tangible solution to Denver's unhoused problem because there are a lot of unhoused people in Denver, there's no way it's their fault,” said protester GiGi Hagopian.

This week the city posted to its website, that all rec centers would be activated as warming shelters during regular business hours. The city also noted that shelters are available like Coalition for the Homeless and Salvation Army for those who need them.

But protesters said there’s often not enough space and that the city has a contract they have yet to fulfill.

"The city has an existing contract with Bayaud Enterprises to run a pop-up emergency shelter at rec centers in extreme cold weather like this. They had this contract all year and never used it,” said a protester with Mutual Aid Monday.

The city confirmed Friday they do have contact with Bayaud that allows them to expand shelter operations to rec centers, but said it's only used when existing shelters don't have enough capacity, which was not the case on Thursday,

According to the city, at least 60 beds were open and available for those needing shelter.

The city also noted that when rec centers are used as emergency shelters they don't have the services typically available at existing shelter locations, such as food service, transportation to available beds, and support services. Using the centers as shelters can also disrupt regular operations which community members rely on, according to the city.

Denver District 9 Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca came across the protest while at the recreation center for something else and immediately jumped into action. She’s hopes for better understanding.

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"I hope the rest of the city understands what we're dealing with, nobody should be dying on our streets or losing limbs on a cold night like this," she said. "Especially when we have resources coming from the federal government right now, we should be using that to protect life."

The protest and sit in ended with Denver Police officers arriving to provide motel vouchers to five people identified by CdeBaca who helped defuse the situation. Police said the others were subject to arrests, but our crew did not witness anyone being arrested while there.

The city said it used its contract with Bayaud Industries during a severe weather event on Feb. 21 to provide extra staffing at the Lawrence Street Shelter in response to a surge in demand.

The Department of Housing and Stability's full statement is below.

“We know severe weather poses a serious danger to those staying outside. We have capacity for people experiencing homelessness in our shelters, and we encourage people to come inside. 

Last night, there were more than 60 beds available, with additional overflow capacity if needed. Restrictions from shelters are waived during severe weather events except in cases where someone has been violent. We have reached out to Denver Homeless Out Loud and Mutual Aid Monday, and hope to discuss the concerns they expressed last night further.”