Providing a Lifeline

Regis Safe Outdoor Space answers call to help people experiencing homelessness

Photos by Barry “Bear” Gutierrez

Joe Giles was used to the stress of not having a home. Living on the streets meant that he couldn’t walk around without packing up everything he owned and carrying it around with him everywhere he went. Ever since people stole his dog’s food out of his shopping cart, he worried that his belongings would get stolen. People would blow smoke in his dog Lucy’s face. He didn’t have regular access to his medications. His life felt chaotic.


So, he was relieved this past winter when he found a temporary home in the Regis University Safe Outdoor Space (SOS), managed by Denver nonprofits the Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC) and the St. Francis Center. One day in early March, he was happy that he had access to electricity in his tent, set up in a row of others nearly identical. It had snowed the day before, but Giles didn’t mind. Colorado’s climate meant he could wear a T-shirt the next day.

“I feel safe here,” he said. “It’s cool to see people here hang out with each other and be friendly with each other.”

By March, he had been in the SOS for three months. His story is similar to that of many other residents: He learned about the housing alternative after volunteers from the St. Francis Center mentioned it. The center provides shelter for men and women experiencing homelessness in the Denver area. “I’ve loved it ever since,” he said. Now, he has access to counseling and medical care, among other resources provided in the SOS, and Lucy has a safe place to rest.

The Regis SOS, located in a parking lot on the far east side of the northwest Denver campus, between the athletic fields and Federal Boulevard, has been operating since June 2021. The 19,000-square-foot site, which is staffed 24/7 by the center and has space to host up to 60 people, is equipped with portable toilets, showers, an office trailer and areas where residents can access services. The site has a perimeter fence and entry points that are operated at all times. To live in the site, residents are selected through a screening process intended to make sure they are well-suited to it. Residents are not allowed to use drugs or alcohol.

The site, set to pack up this summer to move to a new location, was a key part of a series of innovative strategies intended to address a crisis of homelessness in Denver.


“It was very exciting to be able to partner with Regis University and [to be] able to come into this parking lot that was being unused during COVID,” said Cuica Montoya,  the SOS program manager for Colorado Village Collaborative. “We were very excited to be here, and we’re grateful for the partnership.”

The first SOS site opened in downtown Denver in December 2020, five months after Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced a partnership with CVC to open secure, fully staffed sites for people experiencing homelessness. The CVC partners with the St. Francis Center and several community organizations that provide services to residents, including medical and dental appointments and Denver Public Library Peer Navigators, among others. During a typical day, residents work, meet with case managers and access services. One of the main goals for residents is to get into permanent, stable housing.

In 2021, 5,530 people were experiencing homelessness in Denver, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development point-in-time count, conducted Feb. 25. This count included people who were either in emergency shelter or transitional housing, but not those who were unsheltered, or living outside, to prevent the risk of COVID-19 transmission. In its 2021 annual report, the CVC attributed the deepening crisis to COVID-19, a lack of affordable housing, systemic racism and the gap between wages and the cost of living. A report by the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative illustrates the pandemic’s impact on homelessness in the area: Between 2020 and 2021, metro Denver area saw a 40 percent increase in the number of people accessing emergency shelter and a 99 percent increase in those seeking shelter who were newly homeless.

CVC Executive Director Cole Chandler said that “Upon the onset of the pandemic, there was simply the need to create more spaces for more people faster, and Safe Outdoor Spaces emerged as an obvious opportunity for that.”

According to preliminary CVC data, the nonprofit served 289 people through SOS sites and tiny homes in 2021, the other major component of CVC’s mission. CVC operates two tiny home villages, which serve 47 residents.

“It seems like a very logical connection that was made at Regis,” said Ian Stitt, the Regis SOS site manager. “It seemed like a natural fit. I think Regis’ mission and the St. Francis Center's mission align in a lot of ways.”

A Lifetime of Service

Regis Prof. Emeritus Byron Plumley has been keenly aware of the homelessness problem for decades. A lifelong volunteer and Catholic worker, much of Plumley’s life has been dedicated to service.

He attended seminary as a young man but switched gears and eventually became an affiliate faculty member in Regis’ religious studies program in 1989. He retired, becoming an emeritus professor of comparative religions in 2013, but remains involved in the Regis community.

For Plumley, the concept of a safe outdoor space wasn’t new. He said his wife, lifelong volunteer Shirley Whiteside, found notes recently from a meeting of community organizations 20 years ago that mentioned a concept similar to SOS. But it took COVID-19 to put the idea into action. When he learned that Denver was introducing SOS sites as a way to address the crisis, Plumley didn’t hesitate.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I definitely want to help with that,’” Plumley said. “I knew I wanted to be involved. So, I signed up right away to be involved with the first one that opened up in downtown Denver.”

As he became more involved with SOS sites, Plumley wanted to engage Regis. He brought the idea to then-Regis President Rev. John P. Fitzgibbons, S.J., who agreed to meet with CVC and St. Francis Center leaders.

When Regis leaders visited a downtown Denver SOS in early 2021, it was no surprise that Plumley happened to be volunteering there that day.

When Regis announced that it would welcome the SOS to campus, Fitzgibbons said the site aligned with the University’s mission.

“Ours is a faith that does justice, a faith that calls on us to commit ourselves to combat indifference, walk with the poor and foster dignity among all peoples,” Fitzgibbons said. “We were given the opportunity to provide a safe and secure temporary home for those suddenly cast onto the streets through no fault of their own. We embrace and welcome those who need an extra measure of human kindness and concern during these difficult times. As Pope Francis says, ‘If we do not take care of one another ... we cannot heal the world.’”

Chandler, the SOS executive director, said he has always admired Plumley’s commitment to service, which made the success of the SOS possible. Plumley volunteered and helped build all of the sites.

“He's been a weekly volunteer, working shifts and, building relationships with people, cleaning up trash and doing servant kind of stuff — the kind of stuff that people that are trying to build a better world do,” Chandler said. “Byron is that type of person, and he is somebody that many of us should aspire to be like and he has utilized his voice and relationships and vision to make the world better for people who are on the margins.”

Chandler also recognized the efforts of Regis Community Relations Director Jenna Farley, who played an integral part in collaborating with the community and the organizations associated with the SOS, and helped alleviate many of the surrounding community’s fears. “Jenna is just an all-star,” Chandler said.

“She feels very grounded and rooted in her belief in justice and it just has been a joy to work with her fire and energy and passion. I really think she's been somebody that's been behind the scenes, propelling this thing forward, weaving different pieces together, holding different pieces together, in order to make this a success for the University, for the broader community and for CVC and St. Francis Center, as well.”

Dignity in Finding Shelter 

Most days, Joe Giles can be spotted with his dog, Lucy, who is arguably one of the most popular residents of the SOS.

“Everyone loves my dog,” he said.

Originally from Detroit, Giles lived on the streets in Oregon before coming to Colorado. In Oregon, the man who first had Lucy said he’d sell the dog for $10 and some meth. Giles refused. “I said, ‘I don’t mess with meth,’” he said. As Giles got to know Lucy, though, he had a difficult time leaving her. The puppy, who looked malnourished, had trouble leaving Giles, too. She followed him around, and eventually, he paid the man $100 for her.


Today, more than a year later, Lucy is the star of the SOS. On a chilly day in mid-March, she bounded up to residents and guests with a happy greeting. Giles said she originally was supposed to be a police dog, but she was too friendly to make the cut.

It’s not easy logistically to allow residents to keep pets. The site also allows couples to live in the spaces together. But Stitt, the SOS site manager, said anything that allows people to keep their dignity is worth it.

“It comes with its own challenges, but I don't look at it as a challenge or that it's something that we can't deal with or something that we can't accomplish,” Stitt said. “I think owning a dog and being homeless is definitely not easy. I also believe that no matter who you are, you deserve opportunity and dignity.”

Montoya agreed. At the SOS, residents get a break from the stress of finding a place to sleep every night and constantly fearing for their safety. They also have a permanent address, which can be key to finding a job. Since the site opened, 21 residents of the Regis SOS have found work. As of April, the Regis SOS had served 114 people, and 24 residents moved into stable housing. Among the 48 residents living at the Regis SOS in April, half were connecting with stable housing opportunities.

“I think these spaces provide that sense of dignity and it allows for that time and energy [to be] a reintroduction to self,” she said.

‘I’d love to work myself out of a job’

Stitt sees homelessness as a problem that requires support from the community. “People experiencing homelessness are in everyone's neighborhood, whether or not they know it,” he said. “The solution to homelessness has got to be a community-based solution, where we, as a community at large, decide to make this a priority to deal with.”

He said he hopes the SOS model continues.

“In every iteration we've had, we've tried to step up the game in trying to find better ways to serve our community members,” Stitt said. “One of the things that Cuica [Montoya] said that I believe is that I'd love to work myself out of a job. I'd like to see this in more communities. I'd like to see more people taking part.”

The way things are going, that might be possible. The idea of temporary housing in safe spaces is spreading. Chandler said representatives from more than a dozen cities, from Louisville, Ky., to Minneapolis, Minn., have called CVC to learn about the program.

“It's been it's been a huge success for our city and we're excited to be able to share our learnings with other areas,” Chandler said. “[We’re] just really grateful to Regis for stepping up as a major institutional partner. It brings a great deal of stability and credibility to this program.”

For his part, Plumley is gratified that Regis is putting its Jesuit values into practice. “I'm really proud of Regis to be part of this and, in the metropolitan area, to be known as an institution that really walks its talk,” Plumley said. “We say we are about justice and service. Well, you can witness that here at Regis.”