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A Beacon of Hope for Denver’s Growing Homeless Population

Architects team up with industry partners for a day-long building blitz at a transitional housing facility

By Mike Singer

The 2013 AIA Convention’s theme of leadership was front and center yesterday at Beacon Place, an 85-bed transitional housing facility where victims of domestic violence, drug abuse, and physical and mental illnesses saw their home transformed during a day-long building blitz.

AEC Cares projectDenver brought together Reed Construction Data, Hanley Wood, and the AIA, comprising more than 100 volunteers for the June 19 event that renovated the historic property. Built in 1899 as a school, Beacon Place is now one of 15 Denver housing developments built and managed by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. These facilities, winners of many national design awards, include affordable housing projects for low-income individuals as well as emergency and transitional housing projects that combine social and medical services with high-quality housing.

Beacon House serves one segment of Denver’s growing homeless population. According to the latest annual survey from the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative , the homeless population grew by more than a thousand people from 2011 to 2012, to 12,605.

Making an impact

Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity and Friday’s keynote speaker at the AIA Convention, was on hand along with AIA EVP/Chief Executive Officer Robert Ivy, FAIA, to address volunteers from around the nation who installed new landscaping, updated the dining room and women’s lounge, and much more. “Being of ever-increasing service means working together to attack the tragedy of homelessness; of substandard living conditions that strangle the human spirit; of hopelessness in the face of natural disaster; of the overlooked and forgotten,” said Ivy. “Never doubt that a small group of caring people can change the world; it’s all that ever has.”

The brainchild of Laura Marlow, director of strategic partnerships at Reed Construction Data, and Mike Waldinger, Hon. AIA, executive director of AIA Illinois, the day of service was organized by the construction and architecture non-profit AEC Cares. It began in 2011 in New Orleans, with a day of service to repair Katrina-damaged homes before the AIA annual convention. It was followed by a second day of service in 2012 for that year’s convention, at a facility serving at-risk youth in Washington, D.C.

“An AIA convention makes a big impact on a city’s economy by filling hotels and restaurants and boosting sales taxes,” said Waldinger. “A project like this takes a look at the convention impact differently—it’s more about human development. We want to make a difference in the city itself, and in the lives of its people. The people AEC Cares helps may never be in a position to be clients, but they need shelter and support from our partnership every bit as much.”

Reed Construction Data, the AIA’s inaugural strategic partner, has seen the project grow tremendously during the past three years. “When Mike and I first talked about New Orleans, we had no idea of what we were getting into, or that now Reed would have a full-time staff person to coordinate this project for six months out of the year,” said Marlow. “We knew you already have all the architects and product manufacturers in town, and it’s often easier to add a day for a service project when you are already out of the office.”

Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of AIA Chicago, is looking forward to next year’s convention, and service project, in Chicago. “Everybody wants to make a difference in their career,” he said. “This type of project gives [architects] a taste of hands-on experiences of making a difference in people’s lives. It’s [something] you can’t get sitting in a conference room.”

“Tightest rental market ever”

The need for projects like this is clear. A dearth of affordable housing, a year-old city ordinance that bans unauthorized camping in the city, a decrease in state funding for homeless services, and an increase in homeless families (now estimated at 64 percent of the region’s homeless population) has put further pressures on local shelters and social support programs. “We are seeing the tightest rental market ever in Denver, so where we could have placed people before, rising rents making it very hard, even for those who are working,” said Jennifer Forman, vice president of the Denver Coalition for the Homeless. “State cutbacks in funding for the homeless have stretched us very thin. The camping ban has pushed people further out from the downtown core, into the shadows and suburbs where they are sleeping in dangerous places, and it is harder to do outreach.”

Hank, a disabled Vietnam veteran and current Beacon Place resident, celebrated his 6oth birthday yesterday while watching new plantings take shape. “Instead of coming into a messy place, we can come into a home with a beautiful front yard, and that will make people feel better about themselves,” he said.

“Outside this facility it was just a few weeks ago all dirt, mud, cigarette butts, and trash,” said Bill Turner, Assoc. AIA, who was in charge of the design for yesterday’s project. “Yes, this is an institutional building, but at the end of the day, it is somebody’s home, and this is their front yard. We want to make it feel like home.”

The service project “makes coming to the convention more worthwhile,” said Wendy Young, executive director of AIA Redwood Empire. “I’m giving back to the city that I and other architects are taking over for a week. We’re thanking them for inviting us to be in their space.”


Zurich Esposito, Laura Marlow, Wendy Young, and Michael Waldinger, Hon. AIA (left to right) were among more than 100 volunteers at the Denver AEC Cares service project. All images courtesy of Claire Stubblefield.

Volunteers install donated paver stones as part of Beacon Place’s new landscaping design.

Volunteer Michael Hayes paints a bench at the Beacon Place blitz-build.

New landscaping is installed to help beautify the grounds surrounding the 19th century historic building.


Recent Related:

When It Takes a Village : AIA members help to build new youth center in Southeast D.C. during 2012 AIA Convention

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