Denver’s Urban Peak is nearly ready to open larger youth homeless shelter, despite $2 million setback

Denver’s Urban Peak is nearly ready to open larger youth homeless shelter, despite $2 million setback

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The mission of a new 60,000-square-foot, 136-bed shelter for homeless youth in south Denver is evident in its layout, which on two floors features dormitory-style transitional housing divided into six “neighborhoods.”

Young people with shared experiences and needs will live together in clusters at Urban Peak’s shelter on South Acoma Street  — including residents who have left foster care, who are in recovery for addictions, or who are either pregnant or already parenting children of their own. Christina Carlson, the organization’s CEO, and city housing officials say the building sets a new standard for spaces built to serve homeless youth, with a design aimed at meeting the needs of people dealing with trauma.

“Youth are different — and they need something different,” Carlson said of the shelter, dubbed the Mothership, which is set to begin opening in July.

The building is the result of eight years of planning and financial scrounging. It is replacing an outmoded predecessor that stood on the same land and offered just 40 beds. There have been hurdles, the most recent of which was a legal ruling on a labor issue that added more than $2 million to the project’s bill.

But Carlson is committed to looking past the challenges and focusing on the possibilities of the all-in-one shelter, transitional housing and support facility.

For all the money the city and its nonprofit partners spend each year on tackling homelessness, Urban Peak plays an often-overlooked role.

The organization, which had operating expenses of over $10.3 million in 2023, holds multiple city contracts focused on youth homelessness and housing services. One of those contracts was expanded by  $910,000 this year to support emergency shelter and case management for roughly 800 individuals and households. The organization served 937 young people in various capacities in 2023, according to its year-end report.

Urban Peak’s value is in its focus on helping some of the most vulnerable people on the streets. Jamie Rife, director of Denver’s Department of Housing Stability, says one of the most telling signs that someone is at risk of becoming homeless in the future is if they have experienced homelessness at an earlier stage of life.

“If we can stop it when they’re young,” she said, “they are less likely to experience it as an adult.”

Once the Mothership opens, Urban Peak will expand age eligibility for its 24-hour services beyond people who are 15 to 20 years old; those will now be open to clients as young as 12 and as old as 24.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from our youth at our drop-in center that they want access to 24/7 services at Urban Peak and that they don’t want to stay in adult shelters,” Carlson said.

From the outside, the new building has the look and feel of a modern library building, with tiled accent walls and an entryway that opens up to high ceilings inside. It’s a drastic departure from the 40-bed shelter that Urban Peak used to operate on the same property at 1630 S. Acoma St., a structure featuring ample amounts of corrugated metal that Carlson described as small, dark and, at times, smelly.

For Rife, it’s the little things that stand out in the new facility.

She was struck by the fact that the windows are in different positions in rooms across from one another in the dorm areas, making each feel more distinct and less institutional.

Christina Carlson, CEO of Urban Peak, stands outside of the nearly-completed 136-bed
Christina Carlson, CEO of Urban Peak, stands outside of the nearly-completed 136-bed “Mothership” youth homeless shelter in Denver on May 24, 2024. “All the work we do is trauma-informed. We start with what happened to you, not what’s wrong with you. That’s how we begin healing instead of shaming,” Carleson said. (Photo by Zachary Spindler-Krage/The Denver Post)

Labor law adds $2.1 million to cost

Before the building’s opening, the biggest complication facing the Mothership’s launch became official last month — though it has been developing for more than a year.

An independent hearing officer ruled that Urban Peak underpaid workers who helped build the project by a combined $2.1 million. That will come on top of what was already a roughly $37 million price tag for the project, Urban Peak officials said last week.

The problem dates back to early 2023, shortly after the project’s groundbreaking. Denver Labor, a division of the city auditor’s office tasked with investigating and enforcing prevailing wage laws, determined that Urban Peak and its development team had erred in classifying the Mothership as a residential construction project.

Instead, Denver Labor officials determined, the project — which blends beds for homeless youth with administrative offices, physical and mental health spaces, classrooms, a music studio and more —  is a “building” project, a form of commercial construction. That classification commands higher wages for tradespeople, including almost $13 more per hour in base wages for electricians and roughly $16 per hour more for plumbers.

Relying on $16.7 million in voter-approved bond funding as a critical part of its financing stack, Urban Peak is obligated to abide by Denver Labor’s rulings.

The situation has played out during construction, and Urban Peak ultimately requested a third-party review. On April 30, independent hearing officer Pilar Vaile issued a final order siding with Denver Labor.

Carlson emphasized that the discrepancy was an honest mistake, and it was never Urban Peak’s intention to shortchange anyone or duck prevailing-wage laws.

The organization had been preparing for the outcome, she said, with money set aside to pay workers what they are owed. But the financial hit will have an impact. The Mothership is now likely to open in phases, Carlson said, with the emergency shelter, a well-being center and at least one dormitory area taking priority.

“We are working hard to raise the additional funds right now, and that impacts how quickly we can open,” Carlson said.

A worker nears completion on a communal kitchen that will provide food for unhoused youth at Urban Peak's 136-bed
A worker nears completion on a communal kitchen that will provide food for unhoused youth at Urban Peak’s 136-bed “Mothership” youth homeless shelter in Denver on May 24, 2024. (Photo by Zachary Spindler-Krage/The Denver Post)

Shelter’s welcoming environment

The prevailing wage situation is not the only wheel turning for Urban Peak.

The organization is looking to sell its drop-in day shelter at 2100 Stout St. in downtown Denver. That facility has served as an overnight shelter while the Mothership has been under construction. Urban Peak has also put on the market one of the apartment complexes it owns and manages for young people.

The sales are intended to raise money for ongoing operations, Carlson said.

Employee retention is a challenge in the homeless services world, and Carlson is in the midst of negotiating the organization’s first contract with Urban Peak’s dozens of rank-and-file workers, who voted to form a union last summer — a first for any homeless shelter provider in Colorado.

Amid the big changes, David Jennings, secretary of Urban Peak’s board of directors, focuses on the impact he knows the organization can have on the lives of young people.

He speaks from experience. After leaving an abusive household as a teenager, Jennings eventually found himself at Urban Peak. The organization saved his life, he said.

He now runs his own Medicaid consulting business. He sees the Mothership — and the millions of dollars invested in it — as a beacon to youth struggling to find a safe place.

“It’s going to be that piece that says, ‘I’m worth investing in,’ ” he said. “When a youth walks in, they’re going to feel welcome, not only by the staff but also by the environment in the building.”

Construction continues on Urban Peak's 136-bed
Construction continues on Urban Peak’s 136-bed “Mothership” youth homeless shelter in Denver on May 23, 2024. (Photo by Zachary Spindler-Krage/The Denver Post)

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