Need for proposed supportive housing project not contested, only its location

Facility in Denver would include 98 affordable units and 75 beds for people without homes to recover from hospital stays

The side of the building of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless' Stout Street Health Center in Denver. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

A proposed supportive housing and recuperative care facility in Denver received push-back this week from an area business owner who is concerned about the concentration of poverty in the area.

On Tuesday, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless presented to the State Housing Board a new housing project that aims to create 98 affordable and supportive housing units as well as 75 recuperative care beds where patients can recover once discharged from the hospital.  

“We have, in our collaboration with Denver Health, identified over 500 people who are homeless who are the highest utilizers of health care in the system,” said John Parvensky, president and CEO of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “(Hospitals) are essentially spending over $33 million a year just to deal with the needs of this population.”

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The 9-story building, called the Renaissance Legacy Lofts & Stout Street Recuperative Care Facility, will be located on 22nd and Stout Street, adjacent to the organization’s Health Center. 

“We’ve always had the vision of having this recuperative care opportunity because it is such a growing need that we hear from our hospitals,” Parvensky said.

The Coalition hopes to have the financing and construction contracts in place by the end of the year, with construction starting before 2021, according to Cathy Alderman, vice president of communication and public policy for Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. 

“It will likely take a year to 18 months to complete construction but our plans are to have it in service in 2022,” Alderman said in an email. “Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts so the timeline can shift but this is what we are hoping for.”

Opposition from nearby business owner 

The project won the support of the State Housing Board but solicited a passionate public comment from a nearby business owner who worries about the effect the concentration of people experiencing homelessness will have on the neighborhood.

“We have been supportive and have admired the work that the Coalition has done to house people,” said Marilyn Megenity, owner of the nearby Mercury Cafe. 

“I think that probably all of us are in agreement that housing first is what’s going to help our mental health crisis and our poverty crisis,” she added. “And I am in support of this building and what it means to the people who are homeless, and in recuperation, but not in this location.”

During her public comment, Megenity told the board that her employees don’t feel safe at night, and that she’s disappointed with how the existing property is managed.

The exterior of the Mercury Cafe in Denver. The cafe has been open for more than 40 years. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

 “The reality on the ground with these three buildings is the saturation of this very needy community on this block is really unmanageable,” said Megenity, who plans to hold community meetings in the coming weeks to discuss her concerns and those of others. “I’m supportive of this building being built, just not in this neighborhood.”

In a recent opinion article, “When I die, scatter my ashes at the Mercury Cafe,” by famed poet and activist Andrea Gibson in Westword, Gibson described Megenity as an “anti-capitalist feminist revolutionary whose lifelong community activism lives at the heart of the two-story restaurant/music venue that has been for decades a political hub in Denver.”

  I’m supportive of this building being built, just not in this neighborhood.   -Marilyn Megenity, owner of the Mercury Cafe

Parvensky, in response to Megenity’s concerns about a concentration of poverty in the area, said the Coalition is also looking at areas in other Denver neighborhoods such as Globeville, Elyria-Swansea, Park Hill, Central Park (formerly know as Stapleton) and University Park. “Wherever we can find land where we can build this type of product, we’ll do that,” he added.

He stressed that adding more affordable housing to the neighborhood will help to balance the number of luxury and market-rate apartments that have sprung up in recent years. The location’s proximity to the health center will also help people access services such as primary care, behavioral health and housing services, according to Parvensky.

Need for a more coordinated effort on homelessness

The number of people experiencing homelessness in the Denver area was already increasing prior to the coronavirus pandemic that spurred an economic crisis. According to the city’s most recent point-in-time survey from Jan. 27, 4,171 people were experiencing homelessness, with 996 of them without shelter — a nearly 6% increase compared to 2019.

Parvensky said that the dramatic increase in the number of people residing in homeless encampments over the last few months has heightened their organizations’ sense of urgency for providing more affordable and supportive housing.

“We have been working closely with the city to find alternatives to that by leasing hotels, moving people off of the streets into new housing or shelter opportunities,” Parvensky said. “The numbers that we’re seeing on the streets are much greater than the availability of either emergency shelter or longer term affordable housing.”

The entrance to the Stout Street Health Center, which is owned and operated by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. (Moe Clark, Colorado Newsline)

During the State Housing Board meeting, two members, though sympathetic to area businesses, spoke in support of the Coalition’s project and stressed the need for a more coordinated effort between the organization, area businesses and the city to address Denver’s mounting homelessness crisis.

“In order to solve homelessness, we have to have resources and we have to get people housed,” said Brian Arnold, a member of the seven-person State Housing Board. “And that’s exactly what they’re doing.” 

“I do understand the history of the Mercury but at the same time, there’s a greater number of people that need to be served,” Arnold said, who is also the program director at Ready to Work Aurora, a nonprofit that helps people experiencing homelessness find stable employment. 

Samuel Betters, another member of the State Housing Board, reiterated Arnold’s comments. “We can’t really saddle the Coalition with the entire responsibility of policing the neighborhood,” he said. 

“They’ve taken on an enormous responsibility for the city in trying to house people, and trying to provide services,” Betters said. “And at the same time, I feel Marilyn’s pain about the problems that she and her staff are encountering as a result of the problems the city is having with homelessness. I think it really demands a new effort on the part of the Coalition and of Marilyn and the city, and coming together with a more robust plan.”

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