The park ranger, the mental health worker and the endless hurdles they face to help people on Denver’s streets

A program pairing mental health clinicians with the rangers who field complaints about camping in parks aims to get people into therapy, if they’re willing

by Jennifer Brown

Denver park ranger Caronia DiStefano and Kayla Bauer, a WellPower mental health clinician, patrol along Cherry Creek Trail on March 8, 2023, in Denver. WellPower and Denver Parks & Recreation partnered in November to create a co-responder program funded by Medicaid and a Caring for Denver grant. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The woman was hidden under a blanket along a chain-link fence when park ranger Caronia DiStefano called out, “Hey there! Can you please poke out and talk to us?”

The red-haired woman in her mid-40s sat up, startled, wondering whether she was about to get kicked out of her outdoor bed on a chilly March morning. Downtown Denver’s skyline rose in the east, and downhill from her resting spot near Sheridan Station, a man aggressively tossed an electric scooter from a bridge. It crashed onto the sidewalk below and he shouted obscenities at the park ranger.

DiStefano used to patrol for Denver Parks and Recreation on her own. Now, she has Kayla Bauer, a clinician from Denver’s community mental health center, standing next to her, gently asking the woman sleeping outside if she wants water, bus tickets or a therapy appointment. 

The woman, who does not want to give her name, agrees at first to do a preliminary mental health intake right then. But she quickly changes her mind, saying she can’t handle explaining one more time all that she has been through.  

Within a few minutes of conversation, tears are streaming down the woman’s cheeks. 

Denver park ranger Caronia DiStefano and Kayla Bauer, a WellPower mental health clinician, check on a woman near the RTD Sheridan Station on March 8, 2023, in Denver. Park rangers receive about 40-50 calls per week from the city’s 311 hotline. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“We’re gonna go talk about my whole life and then I’m gonna be upset again and then they’re not even going to take me in,” she told The Sun, crying. “It’s not like I’ll get to go lay in bed and watch a movie after. I don’t know if I want to open up again. I’m tired of it.”

The day before, someone kicked her as they passed by, she said.

“I’m everyone’s mess,” she said, “everywhere I go.” 

DiStefano and Bauer give her bus tickets and water, and as they pull away in a small, curb-hopping Parks and Rec electric car, they talk about how they will return to talk to the woman again. Today was only step one. They hope that soon, maybe if they come when the sun is going down or on a particularly cold day or when the woman is ready, she will accept their offers to help. 

“I can come back tonight and check on her,” DiStefano says. 

“She very much has been through something traumatic, and she wants to tell everyone about it,” Bauer says. “And that’s OK. We’re here for that. There’s space for that. It’s also, what can we do at this point if she’s not willing at this time to move forward?”

Based on the woman’s rapid speech and disorganized thoughts, Bauer suspects she uses methamphetamines. But lying on the ground under a blanket on public property is not a crime. 

“I want some peace and quiet. Why can’t you just know that?” 

The partnership between WellPower, the mental health center, and Denver Parks and Rec began in November. Similar to other co-responder programs that partner clinicians with police officers and RTD security officers, the purpose is to deal with the root of people’s struggles and offer longer-term help instead of just asking them to move along. The program is funded by Medicaid insurance and a Caring for Denver grant, and includes two WellPower clinicians who each work three days a week with a park ranger.  

Denver’s park rangers, who patrol not only parks throughout the city but the trails along Cherry Creek and the South Platte River, receive about 40-50 calls per week on the city’s 311 hotline from residents complaining or concerned about people who are sleeping outside. 

Denver park ranger Caronia DiStefano and Kayla Bauer, a WellPower mental health clinician, patrol Denver on March 8, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

One morning this week, DiStefano and Bauer set out from Parks and Rec headquarters to check on three reports of people who had set up structures, which is illegal in city parks. 

The morning starts out rough. The first woman they say hello to on the Cherry Creek Path, near the Champa Street bridge, shouts at them. 

“Leave me alone!,” she yells, scrambling to her feet next to a shopping cart filled with blankets and food. She’s not doing anything illegal; she has no structure. “I’ll make sure to report that you are bothering people in the park! I want some peace and quiet. Why can’t you just know that? What the (expletive)?”

Bauer makes an attempt to calm her down. “I just wanted to check in,” she says, smiling. “I saw you yesterday.” But when the yelling escalates, she backs away and waves goodbye.

Later, along Lakewood Gulch Trail on the westside of the city, DiStefano and Bauer find a young couple camped out beneath a tree. They have no tent, so they placed the few blankets they had at the base of the tree, then built a shelter using fallen branches. They’re so well hidden it’s hard to tell they’re there, but they answer when DiStefano says, “Hey, park ranger, anybody here?” 

A Denver resident reported to 311 that there was a structure and human feces in the gulch, which is surrounded by a neighborhood of small homes and apartment buildings. 

Angel Caranza comes out and begins removing the tree branches after DiStefano tells him it’s against law to build shelters in public parks. His girlfriend, Kiki, stays at the base of the tree as the roof above her goes away piece by piece. 

Bauer gives them phone numbers and hours for the public library, so they can charge their phones and use the internet, and the Gathering Place, which can help them get food and job training. Bauer also warns them that most overnight shelters separate men and women, and tells them how to get motel vouchers. 

Denver park ranger Caronia DiStefano and Kayla Bauer, a WellPower mental health clinician, check on Angel Caranza and Kiki, who have been staying under a structure of tree branches in west Denver. Sleeping overnight in parks is illegal, but rangers don’t enforce the law when it’s cold out, and instead focus on offering other resources or a ride to a shelter. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“We need more public restrooms,” Kiki tells The Sun. “There is nowhere to go. I’ve been to places where they let other people use the restroom, but when we come in, they’re like, ‘No.’ Because normally we have our backpacks with us and everything.”

The couple moved to the park a few days ago after the area where they were camping, around West Colfax Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard, got too rough. The area is notorious for drug use. 

Kiki’s parents are dead, she says. “Pretty sadly, my mom lives on the street,” Caranza says. The couple met while living outside.

“They treat us like being homeless is illegal,” Kiki says. 

“It’s so debilitating to them that they just don’t want help”

DiStefano started her career in state parks, at Chatfield and Cherry Creek, then switched to Denver Parks and Rec about two years ago. Her days are mostly a series of uncomfortable situations, but they’re easier to handle with a mental health worker standing by. 

She and other park rangers received crisis intervention training, watching as facilitators acted out various scenarios involving people who are suicidal in a park or are in some other mental health crisis. But that training doesn’t compare to having a clinician present, DiStefano said. 

“Having somebody who knows what they’re talking about and what they’re doing, it’s been wonderful and really helpful to connect people with resources,” she said. “We just don’t have a deep education like our co-responders do.”

The future plan is to get a vehicle that would allow park rangers and clinicians to safely transport someone to a crisis center. For now, they call STAR, a mobile crisis program run by WellPower, the Denver Police Department, the county health department and Denver Health. 

Before DiStefano had a co-responder, she waited with a woman who was delusional until a STAR van arrived and took her to the hospital. The woman was new to an all-male encampment on the Platte River Trail and was in “serious crisis,” calling for her mother and sobbing and scribbling words on a sidewalk. 

DiStefano felt at a loss to help the woman, and could only sit with her and wait for her ride.

One tough part of the job is deciding whether to immediately remove a person’s tent. Now, when DiStefano confiscates a tent, she has a mental health worker to help get the person sleeping outside somewhere safe, hopefully a shelter or a motel. 

Though it’s illegal to camp in parks, rangers don’t always force people to take down their shelter immediately. Sometimes, if no one is inside, they post a 48-hour warning. But if there are needles or jugs of urine or other sanitation issues, rangers take faster action. “That’s something that we need to immediately remove from the park, because there are playgrounds and children playing around,” DiStefano said.

Kayla Bauer, a WellPower mental health clinician, checks on an individual on a bench near Cherry Creek on March 8, 2023, in Denver. Two WellPower clinicians each work three days a week with a park ranger and often bring supplies like water, hand warmers, Narcan, needle-resistant gloves, trash bags, and more for their patrols. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

DiStefano typically deals with one or two campers at a time, not large encampments that would require help from various city departments. And her jurisdiction is parks and trails, not sidewalks.

Before becoming a co-responder, Bauer was a therapist in substance abuse centers and at WellPower’s 14 residential facilities. It’s harder, she said, working with people who are living outside because she can’t always persuade them to accept help, even when the consequences are dire.

“When we got that cold front, and they don’t seek some kind of shelter, or they have a tent but they can’t have it so (park rangers) have to take it, there’s a higher likelihood that they will die in the night,” she said. “I’m kinda sitting with that a little bit.”

Bauer mentally struggled with the job at first, even though she knew she wanted to work outdoors and not in an office. “I started to feel like there was only so much I can do and I got kind of frustrated with it because there are a lot of people out here that don’t want any kind of resources for their mental health,” she said. “It’s so debilitating to them that they just don’t want help.”

Rangers, police remove woman from Sloan’s Lake bridge

WellPower now has about 40 mental health therapists working as co-responders throughout the city. The hope is to expand the park ranger program — with only two clinicians, park rangers have co-responders only six days of the week. 

Clinicians can do an initial mental health screen on the street, then schedule an in-person appointment and provide the bus ticket to get there. Appointments, however, are running about a month out. Still, people can get immediate help with detox or at a walk-in crisis center. 

The successes come one at a time. 

This winter, DiStefano helped move an older woman with dementia who for years had lived under a bridge at Sloan’s Lake. After checking on her many times and letting her stay, park rangers and Denver police eventually determined her life was in danger and took her to a mental health facility on what’s called an M-1 hold, or an involuntary commitment. 

Denver park ranger Caronia DiStefano and Kayla Bauer, a WellPower mental health clinician, patrol a trail along Cherry Creek on March 8, 2023, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

DiStefano sorted through the woman’s belongings that were left behind, looking for IDs or books or paperwork that the woman might need. She found mostly blankets ripped up by rats. 

“People from the neighborhood were stopping by and they were asking, ‘Is she OK? We’ve known her for so long. We bring her food down here under this bridge,’” DiStefano said. “We got her into a long-term mental health program. Everybody was so happy to hear that.”