No vacancy: DNC may displace Denver homeless

The Seven Star Motel is an inexpensive haven for homeless families.

The Seven Star Motel is an inexpensive haven for homeless families.

Convention-goers in search of lodging at next week’s Democratic National Convention may inadvertently squeeze homeless people out of temporary motel rooms.

Homeless families in Denver often board in the city’s most iconic and dilapidated motels along Colfax Avenue, Broadway and Colorado Boulevard when the shelters are full. But with the DNC quickly approaching, some motels are already booked or have raised prices in anticipation of better-to-do guests. Denver’s homeless officials worry that some families will be left to stay on the streets.

Mike Pomeroy (left) is a long-term tenant at the 11th Avenue Hotel. Jim Ilg (right), the owner, says that convention-goers inquired about the hotel but ultimately decided not to rent rooms.

Mike Pomeroy (left) is a long-term tenant at the 11th Avenue Hotel. Jim Ilg (right), the owner, says that convention-goers inquired about the hotel but ultimately decided not to rent rooms.

“If we have a woman or a woman with a child who doesn’t have a place to go, I don’t want to be in a situation where I can’t provide services to that family,” says Jamie Van Leeuwen, project manager with Denver’s Road Home, which provides families with motel vouchers, as well as other assistance.

In order to prevent displaced families from sleeping outside, Van Leeuwen has called on the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a faith-based emergency shelter organization, to acquire church space for people to sleep in. While the network typically works with two churches to house 10 families, during the week of the DNC an additional seven churches will be on hand to host dozens of people.

“If for some reason all of the shelters were full and a woman or a woman with a child had no place to go and all the motels were full, then I would have this church as a backup,” says Van Leeuwen, adding that the plan is simply precautionary. “My priority during the DNC is to make sure our homeless are safe and well-cared for. I don’t want to leave anything to chance.”

As a voucher provider, Denver partners with more than a dozen motels in and around the city to house needy families. During the summer months, Denver’s Road Home doles out around 16 vouchers per day.

At least one voucher-friendly establishment, the Belcaro Motel on Colorado Boulevard, is already booked by convention-goers next week. The hotel raised its daily rate from $65 to $90 for the week. Other motels may have vacancies during the DNC, which could be filled by convention-goers or protesters in need of last-minute lodging.

The Sand and Sage Motel, on east Colfax, accepts vouchers from the city of Denver to house homeless families.

The Sand and Sage Motel, on east Colfax, accepts vouchers from the city of Denver to house homeless families.

But at the Sand and Sage Motel, a bubble-gum pink lodge on East Colfax Avenue, manager Cliff Swain says he doesn’t expect convention-goers to book rooms since the motel is around 7 miles east of downtown Denver. It’s also in a less-than-desirable neighborhood, he says, recounting the finding of a crack pipe in the room of a tenant who skipped town. Swain says that he fields about two voucher guests per month; his wife and co-manager takes needy families to the local food bank.

“We don’t want them to live here,” he says. “This isn’t a place to raise a family.”

Though Swain doesn’t expect an influx of sudden DNC guests, he anticipates that the event will affect homeless families who stay in motels.

“I know a lot of people are subletting their places [to DNC visitors],” he says. These Denver natives will stay in hotels, he predicts, as they make money subletting, which will lead to less space in Denver lodges. “Eventually there will be a loss of beds.”

Roberta Holt, who co-manages the Seven Star Motel on East Colfax, says that some families can't afford the $35 per night rate.

Roberta Holt, who co-manages the Seven Star Motel on East Colfax, says that some families can't afford the $35 per night rate.

Across the street at the Seven Star Motel, co-manager Roberta Holt says that she recently asked two families to leave because they could not pay the $35 per night rent in spite of her help with their late fees and food. One family found another hotel, while the other ended up in a shelter. But during the DNC, families — which make up 60 percent of the city’s homeless — may be directed to stay in churches.

“The strategy is no different than if we have severe weather and we have all the shelters fill up,” says Van Leeuwen.

Over at the 11th Avenue Hotel on Broadway, things will continue as normal during the DNC. Owner Jim Ilg says that convention-goers called the hotel, just blocks from downtown Denver, about renting rooms. But most demurred when they learned that the hotel has no restaurant, pool or room phones, and that visitors must share a “European-style” bathroom.

Around a third of the motel’s 92 rooms are occupied by voucher holders. Another third are taken up by typical hotel guests. And the rest are rented long-term by people like Mike Pomeroy.

Pomeroy suffered a seizure 11 years ago, and he survives on his monthly $657 Social Security check and food stamps.

Asked whether he’s looking forward to the DNC, Pomeroy, wearing an “American and Proud” T-shirt, says he won’t touch the event.

“I’m not going over there,” he says. “It sounds too dangerous.”

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Naomi Zeveloff

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