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New & Next: An Informed Approach to Homelessness

The Delores Project follows the tenets of Trauma Informed Care.

Terrell Curtis, executive director of The Delores Project, teaches that all may not be what it seems for those experiencing homelessness.
Every night on the streets of metro Denver, nearly 650 unaccompanied women and transgender individuals find themselves with no safe, reliable place to lay their heads.

Most often, they are without a healthy network of family or friends to fill the gaps between times of job instability or medical crises. Many individuals experiencing homelessness struggle with mental illness and/or addiction; wait lists for mental health clinics can be up to two years. Many are aging with no safety net to prevent falls or help with chronic health needs. It follows that some of our most vulnerable neighbors continue to find themselves in shelters, or, more likely, on the streets.

The Delores Project is the largest provider of shelter and services solely for unaccompanied women and transgender individuals. Our programs were started over 16 years ago in the midst of another crisis in the homeless community. Several homeless organizations (including The Gathering Place and the St. Francis Center) created a unique emergency program for this largely unrecognized and vulnerable population. The Delores Project originally operated out of space borrowed from Brothers Redevelopment, welcoming 30 guests for nightly shelter stays during the winter months.

From the start, our model was uniquely based in hospitality and welcome. People who access our services are referred to as guests, recognizing that they are largely unwelcome other places they go in the community. We realized from the beginning that one thing we all need during times of crisis is simply to be recognized as a person. To be heard. For our pain to be acknowledged, not judged. Little did we know that what was so obvious to us would become the basis for the evidence-based service model, Trauma Informed Care.

TIC recognizes that essentially everyone who experiences homelessness has experienced trauma, leaving them in a perpetual fight or flight state. Trauma needs to be addressed before job stability or sobriety can be addressed.

After five years of strictly winter emergency operations, The Delores Project recognized that individuals experiencing homelessness deserve a chance to recover from these experiences with a reliable place to stay and individualized supportive services. In December 2009, our permanent location was opened on the near west-side, in a quiet neighborhood where our services have minimal impact. We now serve at least 50 people each night and nearly 500 different people every year. Because of our unique approach and individualized services, 30 percent of our guests leave us for housing opportunities every year.

At The Delores Project, we are increasingly challenged by the vast numbers of people in need of our services, and whom we cannot accommodate as our shelter is full, every night. Every night we must turn people away, knowing that there are few safe, accessible and truly appropriate shelter resources available to them.

Sadly, given the housing and shelter crisis in our city, this has led to the dreadful conditions recently addressed by the city of Denver in the area of Park Avenue West and Lawrence Street, in which personal belongings of individuals experiencing homelessness were swept up and taken to be stored.

At The Delores Project we believe it is not safe, respectful or appropriate for individuals to violate city code by blocking public sidewalks. We also believe all people deserve access to respectful, appropriate services for shelter, meals and personal hygiene needs.

People experiencing homelessness often have complex needs and challenges that can make accessing shelter very difficult and can feel unsafe. For example, the city-operated shelter, which admittedly does have capacity right now, isn't always appropriate for people who may be working, due to the limited transportation capacity to access that program. This facility is also only able to provide mats on the floor which are difficult, if not impossible, for people with disabilities or the elderly to safely access.

We are told by our transgender guests that many other shelter programs do not feel safe to them, as they often are assigned to a dorm of the gender opposite of their own. This, despite recent guidance from HUD calling for shelter to be made available based on self-identified gender.

We appreciate and acknowledge that extensive outreach efforts have been made to folks staying on the streets, but the basic fact remains: Denver has far more need for truly accessible, appropriate and affordable housing and services than are available. Shelters are full, but the true pressure is at the back door.

While the immediate need is shelter, housing is the real solution. What creative and compassionate solutions can we brainstorm to get appropriate low-income housing online faster?

Terrell Curtis is executive director of The Delores Project.
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