Joe Giles was used to the stress of not having a home. Living on the streets meant that he couldn’t walk around without packing up everything he owned and carrying it around with him everywhere he went. Ever since people stole his dog’s food out of his shopping cart, he worried that his belongings would get stolen. People would blow smoke in his dog Lucy’s face. He didn’t have regular access to his medications. His life felt chaotic.
So, he was relieved when he found a temporary home in the Regis University Safe Outdoor Space (SOS), managed by the Denver nonprofits, Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC) and the St. Francis Center. One day in early March 2022, he was happy that he had access to electricity in his tent, set up in a row of others that looked nearly identical to it. It had snowed the day before, but Giles didn’t mind. Colorado’s climate meant he could wear a T-shirt the next day.
“I feel safe here,” he said. “It’s cool to see people here hang out with each other and be friendly with each other.”
His story was similar to those of many other residents: He learned about the housing alternative after volunteers from the St. Francis Center mentioned it. The center provides shelter for men and women experiencing homelessness in the Denver area. “I’ve loved it ever since,” he said. At the site, he had access to counseling and medical care, to name just a few resources provided in the SOS, and his dog had a safe place to rest.
The Regis SOS, which was located in a parking lot on the far east side of the University’s Northwest Denver Campus, operated between June 2021 and July 2022. The 19,000-square-foot site, which was staffed 24/7 by the center and had space to host up to 60 people, was equipped with portable toilets, showers, an office trailer and areas where residents could access services. The site had a perimeter fence and entry points that were operated at all times. To live in the site, residents were selected through a screening process intended to make sure they were well-suited to it. Residents of SOS sites, which continue to operate throughout Denver, are not allowed to use drugs or alcohol.
The site was a key part of a series of innovative strategies intended to address a crisis of homelessness in Denver. The first SOS site opened in downtown Denver in December 2020, five months after Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced a partnership with CVC to open secure, fully staffed sites for people experiencing homelessness. The CVC partners with the St. Francis Center and several community organizations that provide services to residents, including medical and dental appointments and Denver Public Library Peer Navigators, among others. During a typical day, residents of SOS sites work, meet with case managers and access services. One of the main goals for residents is to get into permanent, stable housing.
Last year, 6,884 people were experiencing homelessness in the Denver Metro Area, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development point-in-time count for 2022. The CVC attributed the deepening crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of affordable housing, systemic racism, and the gap between wages and the cost of living. Former CVC Executive Director Cole Chandler said that “upon the onset of the pandemic, there was simply the need to create more spaces for more people faster, and safe outdoor spaces emerged as an obvious opportunity for that.”
A report by the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative illustrated the pandemic’s impact on homelessness in the area: Between 2020 and 2021, the metro Denver area saw a 40 percent increase in the number of people accessing emergency shelter and a 99 percent increase in those seeking shelter who were newly homeless.
Regis Professor Emeritus Byron Plumley has been keenly aware of the homelessness problem for decades. A lifelong volunteer and Catholic worker, much of Plumley’s life has been dedicated to service. For Plumley, the concept of a safe outdoor space wasn’t new. He shared that his wife, lifelong volunteer Shirley Whiteside, found notes from a meeting of community organizations twenty years ago that mentioned a concept similar to an SOS. But it took the pandemic to put the idea into action. When he learned that Denver was introducing SOS sites as a way to address the crisis, Plumley didn’t hesitate.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I definitely want to help with that,’” Plumley said. “I knew I wanted to be involved. So, I signed up right away to be involved with the first one that opened up on Pearl Street.”
As he became more involved with SOS sites, Plumley became motivated to engage Regis. He brought the idea to Regis leaders, who agreed to meet with CVC and St. Francis Center leaders. When Regis leaders visited a downtown Denver SOS site in early 2021, it was no surprise that Plumley happened to be volunteering there that day.
“Byron is that type of person, and he is somebody that many of us should aspire to be like. He has utilized his voice and relationships and vision to make the world better for people who are on the margins,” Chandler said.
Chandler also recognized the efforts of Regis Community Relations Director Jenna Farley, who played an integral part in collaborating with the community and the organizations associated with the SOS, and helped alleviate many of the surrounding community’s fears. “Jenna is just an all-star,” Chandler said. “She feels very grounded and rooted in her belief in justice and [it has] been a joy to work with her fire and energy and passion.”
For his part, Plumley was gratified that Regis is putting its Jesuit values into practice. “I’m really proud of Regis to be part of this and, in the metropolitan area, to be known as an institution that really walks its talk,” Plumley said. “We say we are about justice and service. Well, you can witness that here at Regis.”
By Sara Knuth, Writer and Editor, Regis University