'We all fall down:' RTD’s first-ever homeless outreach manager makes his rounds


DENVER — Alton Reynolds begins his shift at Civic Center Union Station nearly every morning. 

Reynolds is the Regional Transportation District’s (RTD) first-ever navigation case manager, a role where he meets with unhoused people and directs them to resources.

His role carrying out homeless outreach for RTD and moving people away from transit stations is part of the authority’s efforts to make its eight districts and 2,342 square miles of stations and rail lines in the Denver Metro area safe, according to officials. 

“We all fall down. We’ve all had situations where we needed to ask for help,” said Reynolds, who was formerly an RTD transit operator and is also a counselor. 

“My goal is to reach out to the whole community because we are in this together — it takes a village,” he said.

RTD officials sought federal grants to create Reynold’s position after its police force noticed an increase in interactions with unhoused people who also needed help with mental health, said Deputy Chief of Police for RTD, Steve Martingano.

According to the Common Sense Institute Colorado (CSI), the Denver metro area experienced a 58% increase in cases of homelessness — from 5,728 in 2016 to 9,065 in 2023.

Martingano noted in his role enforcing RTD's fare-evasion suspension program that he would often get calls to appeal suspensions from mental health case workers whose patients had not been paying fares.

Wellpower, a community health center in Denver, named specific patients who were suspended to Martingano and explained that the only way they could come in to receive treatment or pick up their medicines was to take public transit. 

"You know, mental health illness is a medical condition,” said Martingano. “It's not criminal. Being unhoused is not criminal.”

To decrease the suspensions and better serve riders, Martingano asked Wellpower to loan two of its licensed mental health clinicians for a 60-day pilot program, partnering the mental health care workers with RTD officers to respond to emergencies. 

Reynolds, left, sometimes partners with other professionals who work for local agencies that help unhoused people. They meet at RTD's Civic Center station every morning at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesdays to start reaching out to people.
Photo: Lindsey Ford, Rocky Mountain PBS

Within a week, Martingano said, the mental health care workers were able to identify those in crisis and call an ambulance instead of arresting them for unruly behavior. 

Many of the 911 calls officers responded to in the pilot program involved Wellpower patients going through mental health episodes or patients whom they had lost contact with.

“Our main function when we show up with a clinician or Alton [Reynolds] is to make sure the scene is safe and let them do their work,” said Martingano. “We definitely understand that our uniform can be triggering for individuals.” 

Medics and Reynolds wear casual clothing, such as khakis and a polo shirt, to distinguish themselves from police.

With the help of the medical professionals, Martingano said RTD developed five training videos to help bus drivers and transit operators identify when someone is having a mental health episode.  

“By partnering with individuals that know [the mental health] field and understand and can diagnose right away is a win-win for everybody because we know what we’re dealing with in that point in time as opposed to guessing,” said Martingano

Using Martingano’s pilot as a baseline, RTD applied for and received a $180,000 federal HOPE (Helping Obtain Prosperity for Everyone) grant to create a more permanent homeless outreach coordinator role. RTD then provided an additional $20,000, for a total of $200,000 towards the effort.

Approximately $139,000 of that sum was spent, with $117,000 paying for Reynolds's contract through Jefferson Center for Mental Health (JCMH), a local nonprofit that provides services to vulnerable populations.

An additional $22,000 was used for a transit needs assessment analyzing the needs of people in areas of “persistent poverty,” those experiencing homelessness, and those needing addiction services. 

The unused funds stay with the Federal Transit Administration. Reynold’s subsequent contract has been paid from the police budget.

In this role, Reynolds acts as a go-between for vulnerable communities and essential local agencies. As an official, he’s connected to more than twenty local agencies that assist with domestic violence support, food insecurity, housing, and substance abuse help. 

Though he puts unhoused people in touch with social workers and mental health workers, Reynolds himself is not a caseworker. Within his role, he can identify people who need help and offer resources.

RTD’s said that its most significant safety concern is preventing people from being hit by its railways. From 2008 to 2023, there have been a total of 30 light rail-related deaths from people crossing the tracks, dying by suicide, being hit while riding a bicycle, parking on the rail and other incidents.

“This train is quiet, and you won’t see it coming, and I don’t want you to get hit,” Reynolds said.

Part of Reynolds’ role is to enforce RTD laws forbidding people from camping or hanging out beyond the railway’s no-trespassing zone. The areas present a challenge because people set up tents alongside the railways where it’s quieter, he said.

Unhoused people tend to use bus and public transportation stops for shelter, especially stops with three sides, because they offer protection from the elements, said Tracy Brooks, the vice president of homelessness resolution at Denver Rescue Mission. 

“Most of our unhoused neighbors do not own a car and must use public transportation to get from one place to another,” Brooks said. “Most are working with case managers at different agencies, accessing healthcare, and accessing public resources like libraries.”

An unhoused individual who uses Denver Rescue Mission’s services spoke to Rocky Mountain PBS and said he thinks it is beneficial to have someone like Reynolds out on the streets helping. “It would help people find resources,” he said.

He said when he was new to Denver, hanging around public transit helped him get around.

“[Public transit] provided a sense of community and knowledge,” he said. “When I was new to Denver, I had to ask for directions, and individuals I asked were always helpful.” 

Reynolds makes up his weekly schedule by randomly visiting four bus stop locations and four rail stations. The light rail stations he visits the most are Arapahoe, Sheridan, and Nine Mile. 

On a weekday in early April, Reynolds approached Richard Miller, who said he was unhoused, at the Civic Center bus station.

“Hello, do you need some help? I’m here to help,” Reynolds said. 

“I’m doubtful you can do anything for me. I’ll never see you again,” Miller said. “It’s the same ole’ thing.”

Miller said his biggest concern is finding stable housing.

“I don’t think [outreach homeless coordinators] can help me find housing. I don’t think programs like this work,” he said.

Reynolds set up an appointment for Miller to find housing and receive free bus passes to get around the city. 

"Working with the unhoused and observing, there is a lot of hopelessness around, and there are a lot of pressures that come with being unhoused," said Julia Nickens, a case worker and outreach resource specialist with Downtown Denver Partnership who partners with Reynolds.

Julia Nickens hands out a water bottle at the Civic Center station.
Photo: Lindsey Ford, Rocky Mountain PBS

Reynolds often teams up with other public safety workers on his rounds, from the Safe Side Community Support Center, which provides people with hygiene items, addiction support, and life skills training, to  ARTS with CU Anschutz.

"What we try to do is really combat that,” Nickens said. “We try to implant a spark, we try to find their spark, we get to know their names, where they are from, and who they are. We want to try and figure out what their goals are."

RTD plans to add four navigation case managers like Reynolds and an additional four medical professionals trained to deal with emergencies and authorized to call for mental health holds later this year.

Lindsey Ford is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. Lindseyford@rmpbs.org.