December 5th 2022
Letter to Denver Department of Public Health and Environment regarding Emergency Cold Weather Activation
Dear DDPHE Leaders,
It is our understanding that DDPHE is in the process of re-considering the threshold at which emergency cold activation response kicks in. We are glad that DDPHE is re-considering this standard. It was clear at the City Council Committee meeting that the previous standard of 10 degrees or 6 inches of snow was not based on medical considerations, especially not for houseless people.
Medical professionals including doctors at the Denver Health, Swedish, CU Anschutz along with First Responders, Street Medicine Teams and Burn Unit professionals who handle frostbite and amputation cases will tell you that forcing people out of shelter in freezing temperatures is a bad idea.
Most importantly, houseless people who are actually in this cold will tell you this is a bad idea.
While this policy will have effect on housed people, the people primarily affected are houseless. The City’s standard of emergency cold response must be reflective of this reality. There are thousands of people living in Denver without housing outside in the elements hours a day. As you consider a new policy for when cold weather activation should kick in (including opening warming centers, halting sweeps, and additional outreach), we urge you to consider the realities of how houseless people have to navigate the cold weather.
Most houseless people do not have vehicles and many don’t have money for bus fare. This means houseless people are forced to walk long distances in the cold to get anywhere.
People who are elderly, sick, disabled, or otherwise not in full health are even more affected by cold temperatures.
Shelters are overfilled with people in cold weather – forcing people to sleep on the ground with no blankets, to be cramped in corners, to be in tight corridors with large numbers of people, or to be refused at the door due to lack of space. Most shelters are consistently at or over capacity (shown by city data) every time there is a cold front.
People who have been kicked out of shelters in the past for violent offenses (including threats) are still not allowed in the shelter even in extreme cold and are stuck on the streets.
People staying on the streets depend on warm gear to survive. People will often hunker down with lots of blankets in a tent as their best option to stay warm.
Many people who stay outside normally, but have an option to go inside in a cold front will take that opportunity. Sometimes this is staying with a friend, staying at a warming center, or going to a hotel for a night or two.
When houseless people’s property is taken in sweeps in freezing temperatures this prevents houseless people from going indoors to get out of the cold. Houseless people are forced to stay out in the cold just to stop the City from taking their property and leaving them with nothing. When someone does go inside during the cold and comes back out to find their property taken in a sweep, they are punished for going inside – left to scramble to find new gear and left to freeze in coming cold fronts. This makes houseless people far less likely to go inside when cold weather comes next, pushed into more dangerous cold.
When sweeps do happen when people are gone and they lose all their property, these people are left in dangerous situations in the cold with no gear. Proper gear – such as a dry tent, sleeping bag, cardboard – can be the difference between life and death. This is why winter hikers who camp in cold weather use this gear. When houseless people are in the cold without their proper gear, they are highly subject to frostbite, hypothermia, and even death.
Shelters do not take couples or most pets, even in extreme cold, forcing many people to choose between being with their partner or going inside. Separating from a partner, even for a night, can be traumatizing or not possible for many couples.
These are just a few issues to consider when you are determining what temperature should trigger emergency cold activation of warming centers, outreach, and halting sweeps. We have laid out some actions needed to address the safety of houseless people in Denver this winter here. All of this is needed to protect the lives of people without housing in our community. We would like to talk with you more about these issues as you consider DDPHE’s role in activating cold weather response. Please let us know if there is a good time to meet to discuss these issues more in depth.
Housekeys Action Network Denver and community aid workers
Housekeys Action Network Denver