Homelessness: How can metro Denver grapple with problem?

CU Denver and a think tank offer ways to help

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Homelessness is pervasive and costly, and has worsened and grown more complex in metro Denver, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There’s no single solution to resolving the crisis affecting more than 6,000 people in the seven-county metro region, according to researchers who spent months interviewing formerly homeless people and the leaders of organizations that serve them.

Expensive housing, a shortage of paid human services staff and mistrust in the system are among the factors making the homelessness problem even more intractable, researchers said.

A major recommendation by the researchers studying homelessness in Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties is adding more affordable housing options.

The report cited Denver’s Supportive Housing Social Impact Bond Initiative, which has provided housing and case management services to about 300 people experiencing chronic homelessness, who were frequently involved with police, jails, courts and other emergency services.

When those people were offered housing and wrap-around services, they remained housed and interacted less frequently with costly emergency services, according to an analysis published on the city’s website.

The report includes several other ideas that researchers at the Common Sense Institute and University of Colorado Denver identified as successful in other communities and held promise for use locally.

“There are a variety of programs doing impactful work in meeting the different needs of people experiencing homelessness,” said Kristin Strohm, CEO and president of the Common Sense Institute, a research organization dedicated to protecting and promoting Colorado’s economy, which partnered with CU Denver to produce the report.

“Our goal with this phase was to document what’s working, where there are opportunities, where there might be gaps and ultimately learn from them to solve this crisis,” Strohm said.

The Common Sense Institute and CU Denver released a nearly 70-page report Oct. 25, the second to emerge from their research.

The first report, released in August, analyzed the economic impact of homelessness in metro Denver. Researchers estimated that almost $447 million a year is spent on shelters, supportive services, health care and other public assistance for people experiencing homelessness in metro Denver.

The researchers are also urging community leaders to find additional ways to support providers, who are short-staffed, yet offer critical support to people who are homeless or at risk for homelessness.
Amplifying awareness of providers and their work can help achieve that goal, and encouraging formerly homeless people to become entrepreneurs, who offer peer services in the system, can also help address the crisis, study leaders said.

Mistrust in the system can steer some people away from accessing the services they need, so finding new ways to build trust in the system is also crucial, researchers said. Clarifying eligibility requirements can help achieve that goal.

The process to receive services often involves many forms and complex structures that make it difficult for homeless people to navigate, extending the amount of time before people in need can get help. More self-navigation tools could reduce the time spent during the process, researchers said.

The report said it’s critical to improve access to online or electronic information for homeless people who don’t have reliable phone and computer devices.

Homeless people can often miss vital connections to information related to their health, employment, housing, transportation and financial needs because they lack consistent access to the internet, electricity, phones or computers. As a result, providers often struggle to deliver services to their homeless clients, the report said.

“The issue of homelessness in our communities is an incredibly complex and challenging one, and requires a clear understanding of the ways to both prevent people from experiencing homelessness in the future, and providing faster ways to recover from homelessness now,” said Dan Griner, director of design, innovation and strategy for the CU Denver Inworks Innovation Initiative, a collaborative of leaders working to solve humanity’s most pressing problems, according to the organization’s website.

Metro Denver’s population has grown by 21% over the past decade, and grew by 1.6% in 2019, alone. Denver’s growth rate is higher than that of the state, which saw a 15% increase in population growth from 2010 to 2019, according to the report.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Denver grew by 25% from January 2017 to January 2020. While the number of homeless people likely grew in the last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unknown by how much.

Metro area leaders typically count the number of homeless people on a single night each year. But the annual point-in-time survey, or PIT count, did not occur this year because of the pandemic.

The state has a housing deficit of more than 175,000 homes since 2019, the report said, and while Colorado is “a fairly progressive state” at implementing new initiatives, the housing shortage in Colorado means it’s ranked the fourth worst in the nation behind Washington, D.C., Oregon and California.

One affordable housing real estate developer interviewed in the report said zoning challenges and community pushback have prevented them from moving forward any new projects in Colorado in seven years.

Similarly, a Denver Department of Housing Stability leader said it costs more than $300,000 to develop a new single unit for affordable housing in the metro Denver area. With rising rental costs and a housing shortage, many voucher programs are unable to close the gap between current prices and what people can afford, according to the report.

The report said a major precursor for homelessness is vulnerability — the possibility of being attacked or emotionally or physically harmed. Vulnerable people experiencing mental illness, family instability, substance use disorders, repeat experiences of incarceration or domestic violence, for example, are at higher risk for losing their housing and may need immediate shelter services.

Many people who are currently or formerly homeless are considered vulnerable, and the perception of vulnerability is often considered a risk factor by many landlords or rental agencies, who can be reluctant to lease to them because of that factor, according to the report.

One service provider included in the report framed the issue of homelessness as “a loss of community.”

“When homelessness is a result of loss of community, then finding ways to welcome individuals into a new community is necessary,” the person said.

Although CU Denver and the Common Sense Institute have completed their research for this homelessness project, at least for now, leaders from both organizations said they hope to continue working toward solutions.

“The providers in this space and many of the people who are working in this every day — this is common knowledge for them, as to how these things are working,” Griner said.

“But the general public and the community — we all have a part in helping to alleviate this problem and understanding it to a greater degree,” he said. “We’re hoping with education, more people are able to make informed decisions around policy, and around how they interact with this issue.”

To read the full report, go online to commonsenseinstituteco.org.

This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.

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