Chris Conner is the Director of Denver’s Road Home, the City of Denver’s signature agency on homelessness service response. He started with the agency as an Administrator in 2011 after several years of working as a Street Outreach caseworker in the nonprofit sector.
Will you explain Denver’s Road Home’s partnership with Denver Rescue Mission and how the two organizations work together toward a common goal?
Denver’s Road Home deeply collaborates with Denver Rescue Mission to meet the immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness. We consulted in the concept and creation of the Lawrence Street Community Center, provide bus transportation service to nearly 700 shelter guests at the Mission’s programs every night and morning, and now, the Mission has taken up programming in a city-owned facility currently operating as the city’s largest overnight shelter, known as 48th Street Center.
Beyond meeting the immediate need, the Mission has been a mutual thought leader in creating pathways out of homelessness. They have responded strongly to deeper coordinated strategies to assist people from the streets, have cultivated relationships with other providers, and most importantly, those experiencing homelessness, to build successful resolutions. They are much more than a shelter agency—they offer a variety of programs designed to provide support, resources, navigation, and patience to help people move out of shelter.
What stands out about Denver Rescue Mission that encouraged this partnership?
Denver Rescue Mission is organized, intelligent and adaptable, while holding itself to high standards of hospitality and compassionate care. It is fully committed to its service-based mission, and we approach challenges together, identifying mutual responsibility to our work. The Mission is clear about when and where they can help and when and where they need help. This delivers us a partnership that is not just transactional or contract-based, but one that is built from the common vision of ending homelessness each day.
Will you share about your experience staying at the 48th Street Center for one nights as part of the Shelter Immersion project?
Over the last few years, I’ve coordinated a “Shelter Immersion” where we ask city leaders to navigate and stay in shelters throughout the city overnight, then debrief their experiences to us. I participate regularly and have stayed in a number of facilities in the city. Of all our city’s shelters, I have a strong personal relationship with 48th Street Center, where I participated this year. I was a key influencer in the city’s decision to purchase the building in 2017 and helped to stand it up—both conceptually and physically.
Shortly after we acquired the building, the Mission arranged a donation of about 500 steel shelter beds that would accommodate its guests. I helped the Mission’s crew with the delivery, cleaning and preparation of the beds. I also chalk lined a layout and positioned the beds across 43,000 square feet of new space. The physicality of that work already made 48th Street Center personal to me, and by the time it opened, I had touched every one of those beds thinking about who would stay in them.
A couple years later, I stayed in one of the beds through the Immersion. My strongest memory of the Immersion is a feeling difficult to describe. When I took my bed among more than 450 other men, I became very aware that I was in the building that was sleeping the most souls in the city—homeless or not, and yet this building sheltered only about a quarter of our total number of guests throughout facilities in the city that night. Beyond that, I knew from the 2018 national point-in-time census that the Denver metro region is less than 1% of the nation’s total homeless population—so for every guest I saw, I could assume about another 100 people stood behind them in homelessness somewhere else in our country. The thought sort of startled me with its weight.
As I was catching my breath, the heft of the thought turned to a blanket of reverence—for the incredible value of the humanity of all the other guests in the room. I was forced to take the time and intention to think more deeply among them. I had to understand that everyone comes from somewhere and is working to get somewhere else. Some may have been restoring a relationship they had with a spouse, parent, child or mentor. Many are working to get to a job; others to get free from manic thoughts, self-criticism and insecurities. And many working to do all at once. These weren’t hard realizations to understand, but in the context of being in the same building as 450 other men, they emerged as strong and simple realizations (and this coming from a former outreach worker!).
It is good to be reminded that those with little to nothing in this world far exceed the number of those with enough, or those with much more.
Are there any upcoming goals with this specific partnership between Denver Rescue Mission and Denver’s Road Home?
We have been working with all our partners to consider how to provide shelter programming that is not just resolving immediate basic needs, but orienting our guests to housing opportunities. We all want to be emptying shelters, not filling them or opening new ones. To that end, we’re looking at our guests’ experiences and challenging ourselves to consider what it might look like to provide hospitality at shelters throughout the day rather than only keeping them open overnight.
We believe doing so would provide guests with more freedom to navigate work schedules, respite and rest for those in poor health, and better, longer and deeper relationships with case management. Additionally, it promises some solutions to logistical challenges of our current model, particularly our nightly transportation challenge. We still have a way to go, but there is good vision.
How has working with Denver Rescue Mission impacted you?
There are people working at Denver Rescue Mission each day who have built themselves strong reputations for compassion, care, hospitality, and kindness among those facing homelessness. I am humbled by their legacies and feel grace for the idea that my work might be important to each gesture of kindness and support they can create in the lives of our vulnerable neighbors. I’ve been rewarded tremendously by seeing the success of the Mission’s guests and the staff who have supported them. With their partnership, I feel we can do so many good things.