Like many, I moved to Denver from San Francisco during the pandemic. No, it wasn’t the crazy rent or gas prices. It wasn’t the fires, or the never-ending cloud hovering over the bay. It was the concern for personal safety due to homelessness and crime that pushed me out of the city. Today, almost a year after the move, I see signs in Denver reminiscent of San Francisco.
Walking in downtown Denver, I have witnessed the same open-air drug scenes — methamphetamine and heroin, not marijuana — as in San Francisco. Drug addicts sell, buy, and use drugs in broad daylight.
Most, if not all, of the light rail stations are filled with homeless sitting on the ground, some wandering around in what appears to be a psychotic state, and some lying down motionless. Dozens of homeless encampments under the 6th Avenue freeway entry to I-25 are spread only a few feet from the railroads. It doesn’t take much to realize that this is a disaster waiting to happen. The likelihood of a drug-induced individual wandering onto the rails at nighttime is far too consequential.
In the past few months, I’ve had multiple unpleasant encounters with the homeless population in Denver. A young woman in her late 20s injected a substance inside a light-rail cart while I was standing 4 feet away. A homeless man jumped into the road, in Colfax and Broadway, as I swerved my car to avoid hitting him. Next to my building, two homeless individuals exchanged what I presumed to be methamphetamine; one of them smoked it while vandalizing the bus station, and the other wandered the street holding a baseball bat.
According to U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development data, Colorado’s sheltered chronically homeless population grew 266% between 2007 and 2021, and Denver became one of the leading cities in the United States for its homeless population.
However, It’s not just the growth in homelessness that is troubling; it is the unfortunate destiny of the homeless that should concern everyone.
In 2021, 269 homeless died in Denver and the surrounding areas, which is an 83% increase from five years earlier. The single largest cause of death was an overdose, which constituted 46%. None of the seven other verified causes, which include alcohol, beatings, disease and gunfire, accounted for more than 9 percent.
The City of Denver’s response to this problem is Housing First, which stems from the false notion that homelessness is mainly due to the high cost of living. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless states that “housing saves lives,” alluding to the fact that “housed” homeless avoided death by trauma or environmental exposure. This leaves the number one cause of death – overdose – out of the equation.
Not only has housing-first policy shown not to be beneficial, it has actually been shown to be detrimental.
A study done in San Francisco in 2018 found that in two years, 37 of the 199 homeless who were “housed” died. In 2021, Harvard medical experts published the results of a 14-year study on chronic homeless placed in permanent housing in Boston. The study found that 86% of homeless suffered from “trimorbidity” – a combination of medical illness, mental illness, and substance abuse. The study further found that after 10 years, only 12% of the homeless remained housed, and during the study period, 45% of the homeless died.
Between 2016 and 2019, researchers from the Urban Institute based in Washington, D.C. found that 10% of “housed” homeless died. Despite this alarming data, and the incredible tragedy it entails — and even though life expectancy among the homeless is 54 years old (about 25 years less than the national average) — the homeless policy in Denver has not changed.
Does anyone think that a rational human being would like to live on the streets, in complete filth with all of their possessions scattered around? Would any parent not be heartbroken to see their child live like this? Does anyone who has walked our streets really believe this is a “cost of living” issue?
Maybe instead of housing first, we should focus on temporary housing and intense rehabilitation. When we talk about the homeless, we talk about individuals who lost everything (job, family, friends), to accommodate their substance-abuse lifestyle. Many recovered homeless report that getting arrested or spending time in jail was the only thing that helped them rehabilitate.
I’m not advocating for imprisoning the homeless. I’m advocating a shift from a “housing first” policy to a “rehabilitation first” one. Homeless people are dying at an alarming rate, and the current policy does not work.
It is time to change course. We don’t want to end up like San Francisco. We are better than this.
Evy Duek lives in Denver.
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