City to disband homeless at Northside Aztlan for kids’ summer camp

Paige Moorhead

Editor’s Note: Paige Moorhead is also the social media editor for The Collegian.

Individuals experiencing homelessness will be required to disperse from the temporary homeless shelter at Northside Aztlan Community Center June 19 to transition the recreation facility into Camp FunQuest, a city-sponsored summer day camp.

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As the heart of operations closes at Northside, the Murphy Center will reopen June 22 to provide day shelter on weekdays with no overnight housing. The center will utilize both indoor and outdoor areas, and core services will resume, including mail, laundry, showers, daily health screenings, port-a-potties and hand-washing/hydration stations. Additionally, about 35 park restrooms with hand-washing will be accessible throughout the City.

Regular meals will be provided by the Fort Collins Rescue Mission with only 20 people allowed at a time to eat, which indicates people will have to line up outside awaiting their turn. City Director of Social Sustainability Beth Sowder said meals will include hot breakfast and dinner and a sack lunch will be provided for those who come for breakfast.

Sowder said Catholic Charities is focusing on program participants, accommodating women, veterans and families previously housing at Northside to occupy overnight shelter. Everyone staying at Catholic Charities will receive all three meals at the facility.

Sowder said that, while the City still looks for alternate congregate locations, they will be prioritizing a plan to obtain non-congregate shelter — individual hotel rooms — for people most vulnerable, those who are over 65 years old or have underlying health conditions. She said she hopes to see this plan in action within the next couple of weeks, although it won’t be settled in time for the June 19 closure.

“We got approved by the state, so we are moving forward, and we have an appropriation for funds to get considered by (City) Council next Tuesday night,” Sowder said. “So we have the program, we have the budget set up and how it will look — we just need to get everyone in place.”

Sowder said the overall goal is to move people into permanent housing and free up rooms for other people to fill. The plan is to target around 75 homeless individuals in total within the first three months.

Director of Emergency Services Jason Bryant of Fort Collins Rescue Mission said he understands the City has commitments, but he would have loved to see the Aztlan Center remain a temporary shelter until August. Because camping is illegal in the City, there is no clear solution for all people experiencing homelessness who lack somewhere to sleep. Additionally, shelters are still expected to adhere to social distancing procedures, solely operating at 50% capacity level.

“This (shutdown) creates a gap of ‘where do these potentially 100-125 people go if we don’t have a bed for them?’” Bryant said. “The common answer is ‘I don’t know.’ It’s heartbreaking, but it’s where the reality is.”

Bryant said the Fort Collins Rescue Mission is the only “wet” shelter option in the city, meaning homeless individuals who are intoxicated can still enter the shelter as long as their behavior is controlled.

Executive Director David Rout of Homeward Alliance, which operates the Murphy Center, said the three-month, 24/7 shelter at Northside has helped to keep people safe and healthy. No one at Northside has fallen seriously ill as a result of COVID-19.

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“We strongly believe that is at least partly the result of the extreme health and screening protocols at the facility,” Rout wrote in an email to The Collegian. “We voiced our concerns about the closure of the Northside, but the decision was made — and we move forward.”

This (shutdown) creates a gap of ‘where do these potentially 100-125 people go if we don’t have a bed for them?’ … the common answer is ‘I don’t know.’ It’s heartbreaking, but it’s where the reality is.” -Jason Bryant, Director of Emergency Services, Fort Collins Rescue Mission

The closure will have a direct impact on the homeless community. At the least, about 100 men will be without overnight shelter, Rout addressed. With that said, Homeward Alliance is working closely with shelter partners and health experts to make limited day services and meal options as safe and healthy as possible. The Murphy Center is doing everything they can to revamp its facility inside and out to align with The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Rout wrote.

“There is an immediate, crisis-level gap of approximately 100 beds for individual men,” Rout wrote. “We believe that the City should immediately stop ticketing for camping as the community works to find permanent solutions.”

The City has been using the Aztlan Center as a temporary homeless shelter since late March, amid the public health threat of the coronavirus and City structures closing off to the public. Evidently, Fort Collins’ homeless shelters were unable to accommodate social distancing instructions provided by the CDC. This permitted the City to repurpose the community center to a day-and-overnight shelter with the ability to house about 100 people overnight. The community center provided daily meals, showers, regular health screenings, hand sanitizer/hand-washing stations, port-a-potties and trash bins.

Shortly following the Aztlan Center remodeling to a temporary shelter, homeless individuals organized a tent city in Heritage Park adjacent to the community center. Such camping is usually banned in the City; however, the City approved the encampment, which held approximately 100 outdoor tents. Campers were asked to vacate the outdoor encampment in late April.

Three options were considered by City Council: continue with the plan to exit Northside and return it to FunQuest day camp, extend Northside until August and have FunQuest end early or extend Northside indefinitely, canceling FunQuest.

Mayor Pro-tem Kristen Stephens told Council she understands the need to transition the community center back to a recreation facility but is concerned about closing the Aztlan Center to the homeless population. Stephens said she understands the value of day care but worries about “displacing a lot of people who have shelter right now.”

Paige Moorhead can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @MoorheadPaige.