DENVER (KDVR) — The city of Denver is pioneering a new program that pairs up therapists and park rangers to help people experiencing homelessness and drug use in city-owned parks and trails.
“What we do is have a mental health clinician come on our patrols with us and help us on tougher contacts with individuals who might be experiencing homelessness or addiction,” park ranger Caronia Distefano said.
She said the contacts with individuals needing help have become increasingly more common across Denver. In the past, rangers would call Denver police who already have a team of co-responders trained in de-escalation and crisis support.
“There’s so much high demand for this type of help in the field so we don’t have to wait for the STAR van or for PD to be available for us,” Distefano said.
Denver Parks and Recreation now has two co-responders who accompany rangers on patrols from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday through Friday.
“We don’t want to call the cops. We don’t want to have to use any kind of excessive force. We want to be like, hey, what resources can we help you with before we write citations or evict them,” Kayla Bauer said.
Bauer is a mental health therapist with WellPower. She said her main job is to build a positive relationship with people in need of services and get them connected to resources like case workers, shelters, food stamps and other basic necessities.
The program started in December 2022. Both Bauer and Distefano said the addition of co-responders was crucial during the extreme cold weather Denver experienced at the end of December.
“Especially this time of year, we have a lot of people who are outside for whatever reason and freezing elements. We just had that huge cold front come through. So, we find people that are really severely cold and impacted by the weather,” Distefano said.
Teams were able to hand out blankets, hand warmers and connect people with warming shelters.
Since then, Bauer said she typically makes contact with five to 20 people per day and is already seeing success stories.
“We had this guy who was experiencing homelessness. [He] was a little resistant at first and then we had a conversation and he was very open,” she said.
According to Bauer, he is now receiving regular help from WellPower.
“I feel like it really makes everything safer for everyone no matter what class you fall into, how much money you make, if you’re experiencing homelessness or not and makes it safer for everyone,” Bauer said.
In addition to the two co-responders at Denver Parks and Recreation, Denver has more than 40 more co-responders that work alongside Denver Police, Denver Fire, Auraria Campus Police and RTD.