3 metro cities are proposing a ‘navigation center’ to address homelessness. But what does that mean?

Pitched as a ‘one-stop shop’ for resources, funding and cost estimates remain elusive

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With homelessness on the rise throughout the Denver metro area, a task force made up of the cities of Littleton, Englewood and Sheridan, along with local and regional nonprofits, are forging ahead on solutions outlined in a 2021 action plan to mitigate an ever-present crisis

Among the laundry list of items: the creation of a physical space to centralize services and resources for people who are unhoused, which the cities have dubbed a “navigation center.” 

“The navigation center would be kind of a one-stop shop that’s actually meeting people on the street and bridging some of the gaps, sending them off to the services that are going to be right for them and making their experience of homelessness as short as possible,” said Mike Sandgren, a task force leader who heads Change the Trend, a regional network of nonprofits, churches, schools and agencies working on homelessness solutions. 

By connecting those who are unhoused with a social safety net, task force leaders hope to address the root causes of homelessness while making it easier for people to exit that life. 

But fundraising efforts, while in the early stages, remain elusive and task force leaders have not disclosed how much they believe the center could cost to operate. And with some community tension around homelessness, the plan could face an uneven road to reality. 

What could it look like?

According to the tri-cities’ action plan, the navigation center would provide “temporary room and board with limited barriers to entry, showers, restroom, and laundry services, while case managers work to connect homeless individuals and families to income, public benefits, health services, permanent housing or other shelter.” 

For Sandgren, the center represents the social and physical infrastructure needed to address homelessness in a more holistic and multi-faceted way. 

By bringing together a host of providers for services that could include healthcare, job training, food assistance, addiction recovery and more, the path out of homelessness will become easier, Sandgren said. 

“The spirit of the plan is a little bit more long-term solutions oriented,” he said. 

Sandgren said some initial providers could include AllHealth Network, a Littleton-based nonprofit mental health provider, 180Ministry, a substance abuse treatment program with a location in Englewood, and Bridge House, a nonprofit with an Aurora location that can provide job training. 

He also said he hopes to have some temporary shelter in the space. Based on the center’s size it could accommodate 15 to 20 beds, with possible room for more. But drawing the line between center and shelter is important, Sandgren said. 

“What you don’t want to do is just stand up an emergency shelter and say ‘we solved homelessness’ because that’s not necessarily creating the system to move people beyond the experience of homelessness,” he said. 

There are no short-term, emergency, overnight shelters in Arapahoe County, and the task force’s action plan does not call for one. This comes amid a backdrop of homeless deaths, with data showing that from January 2020 to January 2021, 17 people experiencing homelessness in the county died on the street from natural causes, 22 died by drug overdose and four died by hypothermia.

Paula McFadden, who spoke during an October forum in Littleton about her experience being homeless, said she would like to see a shelter somewhere in the region. 

“I think the issue at hand would be a day center where people could go and feel safe while then the next layer of that is trying to find housing,” she said, adding that the colder months make the outdoors especially difficult. “I think a day center is the best place to go.” 

Still, regional leaders are steadfast in their belief that a navigation center will provide more benefits than a shelter. 

“The goal of a navigation center is not just to provide one meal, one one-night stay,” said Carrie Warren-Gully, commissioner for Arapahoe County’s District 1. “It’s really designed to help people who are experiencing homelessness get out of homelessness.”

The navigation center is not intended to be a substitute for a shelter, said Devin Granbery, Sheridan’s city manager, who added he hopes to see some form of a shelter alongside the center in the future. 

“The answer is housing, the answer is putting a roof over somebody’s head,” he said. 

But building anything related to homelessness, even if it is not a shelter, may stir some unease among some residents.

“We’ve heard ‘if you build it, they will come’ a number of times,” said Samma Fox, Littleton’s assistant to the city manager. “But (the homeless) already here, and we’re really working with our partners to provide resources consistently. The reality is we do have homeless populations in our community.”

In Littleton, more and more residents and business owners are calling the police on people they perceive to be homeless, according to Police Chief Doug Stephens, even though few calls have to do with any crime. 

“They aren’t comfortable seeing someone who is homeless,” Stephens said. “They may think something’s suspicious, but it’s not criminal.”

Englewood Police Sgt. Reid McGrath said last year his department received 1,362 homeless-related calls, the vast majority of which had to do with seeing “unwanted homeless people.” 

While Sandgren said he acknowledges the concerns, he believes the time to act on homelessness is now. 

“All of those tensions are legitimate,” he said. “But it’s also not necessarily a reason to not do anything, because there is an issue and we need to respond.”

Sandgren said he wants to “stand something up as soon as possible” but said a permanent space for a navigation center “could be a few years down the road.” 

According to the action plan, Englewood is reviewing city-owned sites that could possibly house a navigation center, but officials have said nothing has been decided. 

“The space is a big question,” Granbery said. “I don’t think that we’ve really narrowed it down.”

In the meantime, Sandgren envisions a more mobile version of the center akin to how Change the Trend operates with a network of providers meeting people where they are, be it on the street or at a community center to connect them with resources.

Why is it needed? 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness in the tri-cities area, and the Denver region at large, has been on the rise, fueled in part by skyrocketing housing prices and lagging wages. 

A 2021 study by the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative found the number of unhoused people in the Denver metro area climbed by 15% between 2018 and 2020. 

From July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, more than 32,000 people were designated as homeless in the metro region, according to another study by the initiative. 

But getting an exact number on homelessness is challenging, researchers say. A more effective method is finding the reasons driving homelessness. 

This was the mission for two fourth-year graduate students at the University of Denver who, in 2019, embarked on a two-year study to understand the causes of homelessness in the tri-cities area that helped shape the region’s action plan. 

“The heart of this project is that there’s all this stigma associated with homelessness (and) we wanted to humanize homelessness,” said Andres Pulido who, along with Zach Marshall, led the 2019 effort. 

In a Sept. 2020 file photo, a man dismantles a canopy during a sweep of a homeless camp along the South Platte River.
In a Sept. 2020 file photo, a man dismantles a canopy during a sweep of a homeless camp along the South Platte River.

The study found the top five reasons why individuals reported being homeless were all economic. 

Of 121 people surveyed, 51% said they lost a job, 43% were unable to pay rent, 43% had a change in employment, 35% had an unaffordable expense and 34% sited rising housing costs. 

Other reasons included relationship issues, mental health issues, the loss of a loved one, eviction and disability.

For families who were homeless, the findings were similar. 

Of 49 people surveyed from homeless families, 61% said they were unable to pay rent, 57% reported a change in employment, 47% reported losing a job, 45% cited housing cost increases and 45% cited other unaffordable expenses.

Other reasons also included relationship and mental health issues as well as credit scores and illnesses. 

The findings show the need for a change in public perception of who is homeless, said Daniel Brisson, director for DU’s Center for Housing and Homelessness Research.

“One of the main things we need to do to address homelessness is changing the public’s perception of what homelessness is,” Brisson said. “Moving from a 1970s view of the vagrant single male to the 2020s reality of the single working mom or dad or young person struggling with a crisis and finding themselves in an insecure housing situation.”

And today’s wages are not enough for some people to get by. 

“Fifteen dollars an hour for 40 hours a week doesn’t pay your rent and get you food,” Brisson said.

The study also explored where people who are homeless stay. Of 121 homeless individuals surveyed, 100 reported living on the streets at some point over the last two years, with 41 saying they spent the prior night on the street. 

For families who were homeless, more reported living doubled up in other people’s homes as well as in hotels and motels, emergency shelters and cars. Living on the streets or in tents was one of the least reported places, highlighting what researchers call invisible homelessness. 

Another narrative the study sought to investigate was the perception that homelessness in the tri-cities area is a direct result of a growing crisis in the City of Denver. While Colorado’s capital has seen growth in homeless numbers, the researchers said many who are homeless in Littleton, Englewood and Sheridan are from the area. 

“Who experiences homelessness in our community is our community members,” Marshall said, adding that many have lived in the cities “for years.” 

Sandgren agreed. 

“A lot of the same dynamics that are contributing to homelessness in Denver are present in our community,” he said. “I know multiple people who are on the streets right now who grew up in Englewood, went through the school system, and are now on the streets of Englewood.”

What comes next? 

Sandgren has said the task force is in the beginning of fundraising mode. But so far the dollar amounts are murky and city officials have been mum on the center’s projected cost. 

The action plan calls for $25,000 for a “pre-development feasibility study” which Fox, the Littleton assistant to the city manager, said was intended to evaluate the needs the center would have to meet. 

But Fox would not say how much a navigation center, with staff and physical space, could cost to operate and she added that the task force is just in its first months of initiating its proposals, with the navigation center being a “year two” focus. 

Overall, the action plan calls for $705,000 over three years to make good on a variety of proposed solutions that, along with the navigation center, include pursuing affordable housing initiatives such as vouchers and staffing a “response team” to help people understand the bureaucratic process of obtaining driver’s licenses and birth certificates. 

And recently, Arapahoe County and the tri-cities approved a contract for a homelessness coordinator who will be paid $110,000 per year, a cost that will be shared between the three cities. City officials said this person will be tasked with overseeing the implementation of the tri-cities’ action plan, including shoring up funding for the navigation center.

While a cost estimate for the navigation center is non-existent, at least publicly, Sandgren said he hopes $150,000 can be secured to hire a full-time director and assistant. From there, the center could tap existing nonprofits and local governments for part-time or volunteer staff. 

City officials said government money alone won’t be enough to sustain the center in the long term and they will need to rely on nonprofits stepping in to secure grants where they can.

“We really do realize that for this to be long term there has to be a philanthropic part to it,” said Tim Dodd, Englewood’s assistant to the city manager. 

Much of the private fundraising is being spearheaded by the South Metro Community Foundation, chaired by former Littleton Mayor Susan Thornton, who said she is currently in talks with local foundations to secure grants but would not elaborate. 

The most concrete funding yet has come from Arapahoe County, which in late January awarded South Metro $10,000 through its Aid to Agencies grant program to go toward the navigation center. 

Warren-Gully, the county commissioner, said while that $10,000 was specifically for the center, a total of $1.8 million was awarded by the county to other nonprofits that may play some future role in the center’s services. 

The county has said it could provide $300,000 toward the navigation center with money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill enacted in March of last year. But that is dependent on how much money Littleton, Englewood and Sheridan can also find. 

“The county will only provide the partial funds once the entity in question secures the rest of the amount needed, so it's essentially a conditional pledge,” said Luc Hatlestad, Arapahoe County spokesperson. 

To city and county officials’ knowledge, a navigation center would be the first of its kind for the region, marking a test for what the best solutions will be for reducing homeless numbers in the tri-cities area and even beyond. 

For Marshall and Pulido, the two DU student researchers, a navigation center is the “right kind of model.” 

“There’s been a big disconnect between the number of people experiencing homelessness in the community and the people utilizing the resources available. There’s many more who could potentially be using those services,” Marshall said. 

“I have not seen many models like this before,” he continued. “This is a really personable approach, and I think there are so many benefits to that.” 

Colorado Community Media reporter Ellis Arnold contributed to this article.

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