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As Denver Reduces Migrant Shelter Funding, Many Have Nowhere to Go

The city is scaling down its spending for sheltering immigrants to save money. But the move will force hundreds of people out of their temporary housing.

migrants waiting in line
People who've recently arrived from the nation's southern border wait in line for food and clothes offered by community groups near a Green Valley Ranch Microtel, where many of them have been living. Jan. 21, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Francis Marrevals is the kind of mother willing to face the worst so her children can have a chance.

Several years back, her son was diagnosed with autism, but he could not get the professional care he needed in Venezuela. The country’s near economic collapse left medical services out of reach for her and so many others. But she had to get help for her kid.

Marrevals, her husband and their three children did the unthinkable: They left Venezuela and everything they knew in search of support for her son.

And so the family walked … and walked … and walked for thousands of miles, through Darién Gap, a stretch of jungle connecting Colombia with Panama, and then several other countries. They eventually entered the United States and made their way from Texas to Denver.

Here, they joined the ranks of the thousands of new immigrants who have received shelter in hotels paid for by the city — an effort that has cost the city millions and pushed its budget so much so that Mayor Mike Johnston warned it will lead to spending cuts by various city departments.

Now, as the city looks to scale back its sheltering efforts to save money, Denver will resume kicking families out, like the Marrevals, this coming week.

About 140 people are expected to exit hotel shelters on Monday, Feb. 5, alone, Department of Human Services spokesperson Jon Ewing told Denverite.

Throughout the week, more than 450 people will likely have to leave the temporary comfort of these shelters, according to a presentation to City Council’s Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee.

With the city currently sheltering 3,870 new immigrants, mutual aid organizers worry that more children will have to brave the rest of the winter outside as their families work to or try to secure housing.

Marrevals, whose family has already cycled out of the Denver hotel shelter system, understands all too well the unsheltered life that likely awaits hundreds of new immigrants. 

After a stint in a city-run shelter, where staff screamed at guests and promised resources they couldn’t deliver, Marrevals said, her family ran out of time, and the city “exited them.”

After that, Marrevals, her husband and her children started sleeping under a bridge, along a bike path that cut under Tower Road.

For a while.

Then on the last Tuesday of January, Denver police arrived and told her and the couple dozen single men sleeping there to pack up and move on. Sleeping on Parks and Recreation property isn’t allowed, the police said. If these new immigrants wanted bus tickets to another city, they could have them.

But such tickets would be yet another trip into the unknown. At least the family knew what worked — and what didn’t — about Denver.

As a couple dozen new immigrants packed their bags to be driven by a volunteer to another unsanctioned campsite the city would sweep them from days later, police offered Marrevals and her family something extra: Two nights in a hotel.

Two nights? Then what? The family shelters are full.

“After that, we’ll once again sleep on the street,” she said in Spanish.

Denver, a city that has prided itself on welcoming new immigrants, has changed its message to the latest generation of newcomers fleeing Venezuela’s economic and political turmoil. 

City officials have said Denver is a welcoming place and don’t want to let parents and children stay on the streets. But parents and children who have overstayed their welcome at city shelters are already staying on the streets.

At the shelters, though, a blunt message is inscribed on a poster in Spanish: Denver’s cold winter weather is dangerous. The shelters are full. The city does not anticipate having shelter space in the future. It’s illegal to camp in the streets of Denver. We recommend you find another destination. Ask about bus tickets to other parts of the country. 

Here’s how the city explains the sign.

“Our priority is to ensure migrant guests are treated fairly and are placed in a situation that fits their needs, like built-in support systems, family connections or job opportunities,” wrote Ewing in an email. “Individual tickets are purchased based on destination requests directly from migrants to various cities, after assurances are gathered that the individual or family truly desires the intended location.”

Some of these people, now homeless, will accept bus tickets to other cities. In January alone, the city purchased more than 2,000 tickets, sending people to other destinations within the United States, most going to New York City and Chicago.

“We do not cover travel outside the U.S., but we would ask for support from our community providers should this be requested,” Ewing explained.

a group of people listens to instructions
City workers and volunteers prepare to clear out an encampment, mostly populated by newly arrived migrants, from the area around an old motel on Zuni Street at the edge of Jefferson Park. Jan. 3, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Not every new Venezuelan immigrant has another city to go to, though. Some are hoping to move in with a Denver host family.

Others plan to work under-the-table jobs and rent a place in a city where locals have increasingly said they cannot afford to rent.

Many will receive support from already overworked and underfunded nonprofits, churches and everyday residents who have volunteered to help try to meet the needs of people that a city with a $4 billion budget says it can no longer help.

Nearly every new immigrant from Venezuela Denverite has spoken to has expressed a desire to work. Many who are eligible are waiting for or working toward applying for work authorization. Many won’t have that option.

In the meantime, they’re willing to scrape by, through freezing weather, hoping soon they’ll be able to pull themselves out of homelessness when they are finally allowed to provide for themselves — if that day comes.

But for others, who don’t have another city to go to, who aren’t eligible to work, and who won’t find a host family, the streets may be the only option for the foreseeable future — even if it’s unsafe.

Volunteers, who have been scrambling to meet the basic needs of newcomers living on the streets, are furious that the city will force more people to live outside next week.

“We are just really upset because we have been asking the City since October to give us a safe campground where we can move everyone,” said Candice Marley, who works with the nonprofit All Souls Denver. “We’ve identified spots with RTD. We’ve given spots to the mayor’s office on request. And they still don’t give us a safe camp zone.”

So her nonprofit has worked to winterize the unsanctioned encampments, and often when they’re swept, thousands of dollars in donated gear are trashed.

“We have to move, and they still won’t give us a place to go,” Marley said. “It’s as if they think the people will evaporate.”

How is the city asking new immigrants to leave shelters?

People living in the shelters received letters with end-of-stay dates in January. Over the next two months, they will be forced to leave.

“As it stands currently, an average day will see 50-60 people exit shelter,” Ewing said. “While in shelter, we encourage guests to work with our nonprofit partners as well as utilize the legal and work authorization clinics we are facilitating.”

For some, that has worked. But not for all.

For some, the availability of resources is lost in translation, several people who had been living in the shelters told Denverite.

Staff at the nonprofits and community volunteers like Marley say they are overwhelmed and that the city is dumping its problem on them. Volunteers have complained that the city has barred them from entering the shelters, making it tough to do the kind of outreach needed to give people a soft landing after they are evicted from the motels and hotels.

“For privacy and safety concerns, we generally discourage community members from coming into the hotels,” Ewing said. “That in mind, we do allow nonprofits and groups to make appointments and work with guests inside our facilities. We also encourage community members to work with guests outside the shelter setting.”

And though these new immigrants struggle, they have faith in the promise of the United States.  

“How do you say it?” asks a Venezuelan woman packing her few belongings to move from her tent under the bridge beneath Tower Road, as Denver Police look on. She stretches for the words in English. “Welcome… to… America?”

When she realizes she got it right, she celebrates. In bits and pieces, she’s learning the language, the culture, the possibilities and the lack thereof.

“I need a tent,” says her husband, Douglas, a giggly optimist hoping to catch a break.

“I need a telephone to call my family back in Venezuela,” says another man, with a grim expression.

Others need food, medical help and warm clothes. Today the sun’s shining, and the temperature’s warm. But that won’t hold.

“It’s cold at night,” Douglas says.

Homelessness activists help a group of migrants set up a new encampment in a field
Homelessness activists help a group of migrants set up a new encampment in a Globeville field after they were forced to leave a camp near a Zuni Street motel. Jan. 6, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
As the adults pack, children run around, playing in the dirt with beat-up toys. Volunteers bring pepperoni pizzas, and people take a break for a bite. After eating, they push carts of tents, tarps, clothes and whatever else they can carry to a street corner and wait for a truck to take them to their next encampment.

These new immigrants have joined a generation of Denverites who can’t afford housing and are living on the streets.

But they made it through a deadly jungle. They survived the threat of cartels. And they see a path forward, even on the coldest Denver nights.

“I hope for a better future for my children,” Marrevals said, echoing what so many new immigrants have said for generations. “I hope for a job. I hope for stability for my children, a school for my children, so that they have what they did not have in Venezuela.”

This article was first published by Denverite. Read the original article.
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