Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the biggest changes in his life since moving into Fusion Studios, says Jesse Parris, who spent 13 years sleeping on Denver’s streets. “When you’re used to being told ‘you can’t sleep here,’ and ‘you can’t be at a certain location for so long,’ it’s relieving….when I got into my place, I could finally have some peace of mind…I could finally get some sleep.” He moved into Fusion Studios at 37th and Quebec shortly before the pandemic hit Colorado. Now, he says, “I have a sunrise view…It’s just a beautiful thing.”
Fusion Studios provides permanent housing to those who have experienced chronic homelessness, with 139 studio units of about 300 sq. ft., each with a kitchenette. Now about 70% occupied, some of the unoccupied units are set aside for transitional housing. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless closed on the former Quality Inn in October 2019 and after renovations, welcomed its first residents in February 2020.
Parris cooks on a griddle or in the microwave that came with his room, but admits that he doesn’t spend much time during the day at “the Fusion,” as he calls it. He now spends his days talking to others who are experiencing homelessness, passing out pamphlets and encouraging people to seek available resources. He ascribes his good fortune in finding a space at Fusion to someone advocating for him and going with him to meetings, and hopes to do the same for others.
Parris in 2019 ran for City Council-at-large and plans to run for mayor in 2023, believing it’s essential to have candidates who “have lived experience with being poor and poverty” in Denver.
The City’s recent success in leveraging spaces like the National Western Complex to provide shelter for those experiencing homelessness demonstrates what is possible when there’s political will: “The City of Denver could have done this years ago,” he says. His case manager, Alex Fitzgerald, agrees: “The reality is, these folks are always living in crisis….now that there’s a pandemic, the general public and Congress say, ‘Now we need to account for these people and make sure that there’s something better in place.’ It’s not fair to say that crisis politics or wartime politics don’t apply to regular times….it’s not impossible. There’s just a lack of will. But now that this [coronavirus] is in the forefront, now there’s been action taken. And it’s happened fast.”
Parris ended up homeless at 19 when his mom told him to move out, and then had to live out of his car after coming to odds with a “slumlord.” “I was working the door to door-type jobs, two or three jobs and I still ended up homeless, so it’s not that people don’t want to work. We [Denver Homeless Out Loud] showed last year doing the survey we had here that 60-70 percent of the homeless work.” Parris says most people are unhoused due to circumstances rather than a wish to be homeless. “The majority of people experiencing homelessness are mentally ill and disabled,” says Fitzgerald.
Fusion has on-site behavioral health professionals, counselors, peer specialists, case managers, and substance abuse professionals. Eviction prevention classes, resume workshops, crockpot and microwave cooking classes, and vocational training are among the programs planned, says Fitzgerald. The computer lab has remained open, and all residents have mobile phones, allowing them to stay connected online as well as search for jobs. A mobile medical clinic offers basic medical care weekly, including Covid screenings—Fitzgerald says no cases have been found at Fusion Studios to date. Fitzgerald’s clients range from ages 21 to 64. Some are enrolled in college; others are unlikely to ever be able to work and will pay their Fusion Studios rent with disability checks.
“I’ve slept in parking garages I’ve slept on the bus. I’ve slept in retail establishments. You name it, wherever I could get some sleep or attempt to get some sleep, I’ve slept there,” says Parris. He is happy to now sleep—uninterrupted—at the Fusion.
Funders for Fusion Studios included the state’s Department of Local Affairs as well as Denver Housing Authority bonds. [See Nov. 1 Front Porch for more background on the project.]