GRAND JUNCTION — The temperatures had barely climbed into the 20s on a recent morning as a squadron of volunteers, trailing clouds of frosty breath, hustled into a portable pavilion carrying boxes and pushing carts and pallets of donated food.
Inside the new 9,500-square-foot glass and canvas building, a few members of the homeless community were already waiting along the sunny south windows as the scent of fresh brewed coffee wafted around them.
They came to get warm and to stock up on the donated premade salads, the frosted cupcakes, the cans of vegetables, and the bags of dog food that volunteers were stacking on tables. They could also pick up free condoms, clothing, blankets and housing advice. They could take advantage of free haircuts.
This Resource Center pavilion — the same portable model currently being erected in multiples in Las Vegas for Super Bowl parties — is Grand Junction’s temporary one-stop-shop solution to the problem of homelessness.
The center was built in several days around the Christmas holidays through a partnership between HomewardBound of the Grand Valley, United Way of Mesa County and the City of Grand Junction. The city provided funding help and a vacant city-owned lot for the structure that is designed to serve the homeless community for two years while city and nonprofit officials brainstorm on more permanent solutions.
“This is a game changer,” said Stephania Vasconez, the executive director of Mutual Aid Partners, a local non-profit that has been handing out food and other necessities from the parking lot of a local church for several years and will operate from the Resource Center going forward.
The campus-style center will house a rotating roster of representatives from organizations that have been providing aid to the homeless population in differing locations. They include the Roice-Hurst Humane Society, the Food Bank of the Rockies, the Mesa County Health Department, Solidarity Not Charity, Frozen Hobo Rescue, Grand Valley Catholic Outreach, and 15 churches that regularly offered help to those living on the streets.
Clamp down on ad hoc services for the unhoused
Grand Junction needed a game-changer project after the problem of homelessness recently blew up in controversy.
The city had closed a historic downtown park where the unhoused had long gathered and received meals delivered by rotating groups of church and other volunteers. Whitman Park, which is located along a main entrance to downtown from the south, had also been the site of occasional violence and drug overdoses.
When the city announced in September that the park would be closed, metal barriers were erected around the park overnight. Protestors came out to march around those barriers, damning the city for taking a gathering place away from the unhoused.
“A lot of people called Whitman Park ‘bum park.’ It was kind of a sacrifice zone,” said Eric Niederkruger, a longtime advocate for the homeless in Mesa County and one of those who protested the closing. The park was also an outlet for members of the community who wanted to drop off food, clothing and blankets.
Protestors complained that the city was clearing out the homeless in anticipation of that part of the downtown undergoing gentrification. An abandoned former Greyhound bus station cattycorner from the park is slated to become a multistory mixed-use space planned to include art galleries, and food and drink establishments in a development with what Adam Roy with Aspen-based Headwaters Housing Partners described as “an edgy gritty character.”
Grand Junction Mayor Anna Stout said the park closure and the planned development are not connected.
When Whitman closed, many of those who had been making the park their daytime hangout moved east to nearby Emerson Park, another historic tree-shaded expanse. The city announced that park, which is currently dotted with tents, loaded shopping carts, and groups of the unhoused, will be closed on Feb. 26 so it can be refashioned into a skatepark.
Before the park closures were announced, the city had already teamed up with United Way and HomewardBound to study what other communities were doing to help the unhoused. They had already hit on the idea of the portable pavilion, Stout said.
Stout said the group took the ideas they felt could provide the most services to the largest population to come up with the Resource Center template. Then, they took it beyond that.
“I think this is one of the more innovative and comprehensive programs I have seen in the state – and maybe beyond,” Stout said. “I think we’re finally as a community talking about this problem. We know we need a long-term dignified solution for this problem.”
Another “magnet” for homeless people
Bill Wade, the chairman emeritus of the board of HomewardBound, is one of those tasked with putting all the pieces in place at the Resource Center at 261 Ute Avenue.
On a “soft-opening” day, he bustled throughout the pavilion, directing where tables and chairs should go — and pointing out what will be added once the final utility and construction details are completed.
The unhoused will be able to come into the center anytime during the day to warm up and stock up on supplies, get basic medical aid, receive help signing up for housing assistance, make phone calls, use the internet, store personal items in secure lockers, shower, and be directed to specific services provided by shelters, soup kitchens, churches, veterans organizations, and employment agencies.
Wade pointed out where a staff person will be stationed at an entrance door and where offices will be tucked into the back for providers. There will be space for a medical desk for basic health checks and minor procedures like sewing up wounds.
Outside the pavilion, a dog pen is planned. City-owned dining shelters that were used by restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, will also be parked outside to provide shaded seating areas, Wade said.
A shower truck is already parked outside the pavilion. Portable composting toilets are lined up in a parking lot.
Wade said the Resource Center amenities are designed to fit with the nearby Grand Valley Catholic Outreach facility that has operated as a go-to location for the homeless for decades.
Catholic Outreach offers free lunches and clothing giveaways on weekdays. It also operates a small day center across the street from the new pavilion. Homeless clients can do laundry, pick up mail, and get out of the elements at the day center. But that center is open only four hours a day and is too small to accommodate many people at one time.
The Resource Center will fill some of Catholic Outreach’s gaps by serving lunches on the weekends. The center will also fit in with the nighttime shelters by closing when those shelters open in the evenings.
Nearby property owner Kevin Tinsley isn’t happy about another magnet for the homeless being added to an area that is already a main gathering point.
“I am not pleased with what’s going on. I feel like the city did an end run around us,” said Tinsley, who has scrapped plans, for now, for refurbishing a historic stone building around the corner from the Resource Center.
Housing costs up 60% in 4 years
While the Resource Center gets up and fully operating, the Grand Junction City Council and a Service Council made up of representatives from organizations that provide services to the unhoused, will be studying the city’s latest unhoused needs assessment and coming up with strategies for increasing accessible housing.
The latest city housing study has found that most of the area’s homeless are from the Grand Valley. Many others have lived in the area for more than a year.
There are an estimated 2,300 individuals in varying degrees of homelessness – 907 of them children — in the Grand Valley, according to Ashley Chambers. Chambers, the housing manager for the City of Grand Junction, said that includes those staying temporarily in hotel rooms, in shelters, on friends’ couches, or with family members in crowded conditions that aren’t sustainable.
Chambers said Grand Junction is currently in a “perfect storm” for a growing homeless population.
There is currently a need for 3,300 affordable units in a town that has seen around a 60% increase in housing costs since 2019 but only a 4.7% increase in wages. Chambers said the biggest need for housing is for those making less than $50,000 to $60,000 a year.
“The majority of people falling into houselessness now have never been unhoused before,” Chambers said.
Chambers estimated that only about 100 of the homeless, most with addiction and mental health issues, tend to be visible to the general public. They are the individuals pushing carts piled with possessions around town or sometimes causing disturbances in the downtown area.
She said the other unhoused tend to be invisible to the general public.
Social security income too slim to cover rent
On the recent distribution day at the Resource Center, the needy were very visible. They expressed gratitude to some of the 40 or so volunteers who came out to offer food and services.
Those volunteers said they were glad to have a designated space to work from.
“This is a good step for Grand Junction,” said Dr. Barbara Zind, a volunteer whose job on a distribution day was toting boxes of food from a truck to folding tables inside. Zind was back at her local volunteer work after recently being stranded in Gaza for nearly a month when war broke out between Israel and Hamas while she was volunteering with a medical relief group.
Charlie Quimby, a local author and community activist, came to the new center to help out by offering free haircuts.
One of those who sat down for a trim from Quimby was Larry, a lanky gray-haired 75-year-old who said he has been homeless for years after losing his job, his family and his home. He currently lives in his car — a step up, he said, from waking up in the past “frozen to the sidewalk.”
“Oh my God, Tom Cruise lives!” Larry exclaimed when Quimby handed him a mirror to check out his newly tidy hair and Vandyke beard.
Fred Cann had one word for all the help at the new center: “Great.”
Cann said he is as close to homeless as one can get. He rents a single room in Clifton — the most he can afford on his Social Security payments.
He came to get some groceries for the week.
“It’s helping a lot of people,” he said as he watched the unhoused choosing blankets and coats from boxes outside the center.
Zebulon Miracle, the executive director of United Way of Mesa County, was also nearby to witness the swirl of activity.
“The number one thing to remember is that this doesn’t address every issue. But it is better than what we were doing, and it shows where we can go in the future,” he said. “This is a bridge. It’s a stopgap.”
Miracle will be one of those focusing over the next two years on what that future will be once the portable pavilion is gone. It is designed to be moved to make way for a mobility center planned for the area in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Stout said that limit is not bad thing.
“Having that deadline keeps us from getting complacent,” she said.
Type of Story: News
Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.