My night inside one of Denver’s largest homeless shelters is by no means a groundbreaking attempt to try and understand the crisis this city is facing. It is, for what it’s worth, a very brief experience about what a stay is like in a shelter.
I picked a warm October night knowing the Denver Rescue Mission would not reach full capacity. I didn’t want to take a bed away from anybody who really needed it.
The following account is my own perspective and I did not identify myself as a reporter during my stay.
After listening to many homeless people tell me about bed bugs in the local shelters, I bought some used clothes I planned to toss immediately after my stay. I spent about $15 on pants and a long-sleeve shirt at Goodwill. I also wore an old camouflage hoodie that’s been sitting in my closet for years.
I didn’t take my wallet because I heard so many complaints about theft.
I took my cell phone and a backpack that contained a small blanket and that was pretty much it for me.
Around 5:30 p.m. I walked past the large crowds of homeless people lingering outside the Denver Rescue Mission, which if you’re familiar with the neighborhood, is a common sight on the corner of Larimer Street and Park Avenue West.
It’s often a troubling and depressing environment with loads of people huddled between grocery store carts, suitcases and plastic bags full of blankets and clothes.
As I walked through the doors on the Larimer side of the shelter, the energy of the place made itself clear. Men and women were constantly coming and going and the courtyard was crowded with people as they sat between numerous carts full of belongings.
A man behind a window told me there would be plenty of room in the shelter on this night and all I had to do was put my backpack in a line to secure my spot for a bed. I was able to keep an eye on it from a nearby table.
I was also told I had to get a plastic membership card through the Rescue Mission with a barcode and my photo if I wanted to stay. I turned over my full name, date of birth and the last four digits of my social security number.
I was now in the system.
The haze of marijuana and cigarette smoke inside the courtyard was a bit thick as we all waited for the announcement to get in line.
The wait to get a bed
About two hours after entering the courtyard, a shelter worker announced in a loud voice all women had to leave the premises because it was time to line up. The Rescue Mission is a men’s only shelter and female companions cannot stay, even if a couple is married.
I watched as one woman tried to fold up numerous blankets and fit them into her cart. Another woman with two excited dogs said goodbye to a group of friends as she gathered up her numerous bags and began to leave. People were not happy having to say goodbye for the night as vulgarities were thrown into the air while carts and backpacks were loaded.
As the courtyard thinned out a bit, I took my place with my backpack in line. I overheard men complain about the upcoming wait time. The guy ahead of me said he had to work in the morning as others complained under their breath about the delay in getting the line moving.
Eventually we began to saunter towards the inner part of the shelter.
From the courtyard we slowly made our way into the dining area where a shelter worker sat at a desk with a barcode scanner. Each man took out his card, got scanned, and then was told to take a seat at the cafeteria tables.
This process took a while as a seemingly unending line of men continued to file through the dining area..
At my table I recognized some faces of men I’ve seen on the street and from my time at the Denver library when I did a story on the open drug use and drug deals in the building this past summer.
Finally getting to the bunk room
I noticed every 10 minutes or so, the staff would clear about 10 to 15 men from the cafeteria tables to the upstairs area where the bunks were. I assume the reason for this staggered entry was for the showers.
As my table got cleared, we walked up stairs into the bunk room which was full with about 200 bunks and a community shower room.
To my surprise, every man was required to take a shower before he could take a blanket and a bunk. I undressed, got in the shower area with other men and quickly washed up.
I was a bit worried about my stuff being out of my sight while I cleaned up, but I was able to pick a shower next to a bench where I placed my belongings.
After I dried off and dressed, I once again had to turn over my name and date of birth to a man at a desk who was giving out slips of paper with bunk assignments.
I got number 149, a top bunk right in the middle of the room.
Time to bunk up and settle in for the night
I tried to look for any signs of bed bugs on my bed, but I didn’t see any. While there was a dark stain on my mattress, it seemed clean and void of any infestation. The bunk below me remained empty.
I got settled in pretty quickly which gave me time to watch the room as men dried off and got their blanket and bunk assignments.
Each man mostly kept to himself as he organized his belongings on his bunk. Others quickly settled in and began watching videos on their cell phones. Some engaged in light conversation about the day's events, court dates and what time they had to show up at a day laborer office.
Privacy in this room was impossible.
Some men covered their whole bodies head-to-toe in blankets as they read books or played games on their cell phones.
A man obsessed with his socks
This is the part of my stay where I could see how many men in the room were living with mental health challenges.
While a few men talked to themselves, I watched one man with peculiar interest since he seemed so obsessed with organizing his belongings and his bunk.
He spent about 15 minutes trying to get his bed sheet perfectly square with his mattress, going to and fro from each side of his bunk. When he would fold one side, the other side of the sheet would move a few centimeters. He would then go back to that other side, repeating the process over and over again.
Then his attention turned to his socks. He spent another 10 minutes or so trying to hang his socks on his backpack bar in such a way that they would hang perfectly flush. He spent about 5 minutes on one sock getting it perfectly folded over the bar and then spent another 5 minutes on his other sock.
He was the last to climb into bed before most of the lights turned off in the shelter.
The memory of this man will stay with me as a profound moment. I will long be curious about his ability, or lack of it, to function in society.
The long, loud night
In a room of 200 men, the noise was constant.
I don’t mean to make light of this moment, but the noises throughout the room played out like a continuous symphony of colds, wheezes, hacks and snores.
I could not fall asleep. I used my earbuds and tried to listen to loud music and white noise, however, that did little to drown out the noise of the crowd.
Those who were sleeping seemed quite used to this loud place and the routine of it all.
Around 5 a.m., men began to leave on their own will. I left and recorded my conclusion and thoughts below:
As I say in the video above, after spending the entire night in the shelter I did not experience any violence. I didn’t see any bed bugs in my bed.
I left with profound feelings of guilt and privilege.
I went back home to my cozy and quiet apartment, took a hot shower, and fell asleep thankfully acknowledging to myself the fortune of not having a mental illness and a bed I could call my own.