The building is wrapped like a quilt, a lattice of lavender, blue and yellow paint. Horizontal windows cast sunlight down the corridors. And in the courtyard, natural light filters through the wooden slats of a pergola.
The northwest Denver homeless shelter’s structure is “trauma-informed,” same as the staff. When a resident stumbles in life or breaks the rules, case managers don’t ask “Why are you doing that?” They say, “What has happened to you?” It’s a place that accounts for the trauma of a person’s past, including the trauma of living on the streets.
For the 60 women and transgender people living in the Delores Project’s new bunk-bed filled dorm, where colorful comforters selected by the residents make it look something like a sorority house, homelessness is on hold. And for the 35 others who have moved into one of the building’s apartments, it has been solved.
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This is how ending homelessness works — one person at a time, which is to say one affordable housing unit at a time, in a city that has squeezed out affordable units, according to a host of people who have been working for years to tackle the problem in Colorado.
Denver was the subject of national headlines — and some social media posts insinuating the city is heartless — when 81 percent of voters last month said no to a measure that would have reversed the city’s camping ban. The initiative would have allowed Denver’s homeless residents to camp in tents and sleeping bags in public areas, a practice the city prohibited seven years ago.
Whether camping is banned, though, has little to do with remedying the root causes of homelessness.
The painstaking work done by government agencies and nonprofits is measured in people, and has evolved in recent years to focus on meeting them “where they are.” More than ever before, the work involves asking people who are homeless what they need.
Consider a woman who, for a month, slept on a street corner next to the Delores shelter. Outreach workers asked her multiple times to come inside, but she refused. When she finally did, the woman told them her entire family had died in a house fire. “She didn’t want to come inside a building to sleep. I get that,” said Laura Rossbert, chief operating officer of Shopworks Architecture, who helped design the new trauma-informed shelter.
“What we need as a city is a commitment to creative, dynamic thinking around what those solutions look like for everybody and prioritize the voices of those who are currently experiencing homelessness,” Rossbert said. “The folks who are living on the street are trying to tell us what they need and we need to be listening to them.”
The point is that the solutions to homelessness work only if they are as diverse as the reasons people are homeless.
Denver Day Works gives people who are homeless a day’s pay for a day’s work. The city’s social-impact bond program seeks out the homeless “frequent fliers” who make the rounds from emergency rooms to detox to jail at taxpayer expense and instead offers them housing. The state spends millions each year to send folks from the streets to Fort Lyon, an old Army fort along the Arkansas River, to receive drug and alcohol abuse treatment with the intent of preparing them for permanent housing.
Two months ago, the Delores Project opened the first trauma-informed homeless shelter in Colorado. The concept of creating a living space for people accustomed to living on the streets instead of within four walls also was used at the Mental Health Center of Denver’s Sanderson Apartments, which opened two years ago.
And last month, Gov. Jared Polis signed a new law that will double the state’s affordable housing tax credit, raising the cap of allowed state tax credits to $10 million from $5 million. Last year, developers used the credit to help finance 533 affordable units, according to the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, so the law provides the potential for thousands more units in the next few years.
Despite how it might look, particularly when walking through Denver’s Civic Center park or even a homeless camp on a mesa above Durango, people working to solve homelessness say they are making progress.
Denver has seen a one-third increase in the past three years in the number of people who have moved from the streets into stable housing — from 1,200 people in 2016 to 1,600 people in 2018, said Chris Conner, executive director of Denver’s Road Home, which connects people who are homeless to services.
While the number of people who are homeless in Denver has fluctuated between about 3,200 and 3,600 in the last five years, the proportion has slightly improved relative to the city’s increasing population, according to an annual “point-in-time” count.
“We are definitely improving,” Conner said. “I understand it doesn’t feel that way. When it comes to the ground level, the experience of communities, there are stresses there. We have the same amount of space in this city.”
The city and nonprofits are getting better at the work, he said. “Every day, we meet somebody that doesn’t feel like we have found a solution for them. We know that responses to homelessness need to be tailored to various situations.”
In Colorado, Denver and other cities have been working for decades to solve homelessness, a problem that’s spread to suburbs and mountain towns. In our communities, we are “looking to care for our neighbors,” but to solve homelessness, we have to “zoom out” and look at national policies, said Britta Fisher, Denver’s chief housing officer.
In the 1970s, the United States had a surplus of affordable housing. But as the federal government slashed housing programs and supports for people in poverty in the following decades, the lack of affordable housing nationwide has reached crisis levels. Communities are left to patch together solutions to a national problem.
“We have struggled as communities ever since that point,” Fisher said
Three years ago, when one of Denver’s largest homeless encampments began to spread on the north end of downtown, city leaders began grappling with solutions. Mayor Michael Hancock directed his staff to explore a concept that was taking off in Albuquerque: Offer people who are homeless a day’s pay for a day’s work.
Since the Denver Day Works program started two and a half years ago, 325 have taken day jobs, everything from changing light bulbs at the public library to cleaning up city parks. Among them, 154 have landed full-time positions either with the city or a variety of nonprofits. One woman started out opening ballots at the Denver Elections Division and now has a permanent job there.
“It was beyond our wildest dreams that 154 of those folks have actually secured permanent employment,” said Don Mares, executive director of the Denver Human Services Department. “We literally recruit folks who are in these challenging situations — ‘How about getting on a bus and doing a day’s work and we’ll pay you at the end of the day?’”
Other important metrics: 111 of those who found job have retained their employment for at least 90 days. And of all people who took a daily job, 37 have found permanent housing.
The numbers might seem small, but consider these are “some of the hardest of the folks who live on the street that there are,” Mares said, noting the program has made contact with more than 800 people and offered services. They are chronically homeless, far removed from society’s mainstream routine, he said. Many have criminal records that prevent them from getting hired. And many have substance abuse and mental health problems.
The program, run by contractor Bayaud Enterprises, pays about $12 to $15 per hour and provides lunch, as well as connections to mental health and substance abuse programs.
By January, Denver will open its new Department of Housing and Homelessness, a cabinet-level office tasked with “stitching the work together with laser focus,” said Fisher, the city’s chief housing officer. The department is still in its formative stages and city leaders said details will come later.
Among the priorities the new department might decide to pursue is a “rapid resolution” pilot program initiated in the past year by Denver’s Road Home. When a person enters a shelter for the first time, they are greeted by a staff member who asks them their immediate needs — as in, what would help you get housing today?
Sometimes a newly homeless person only needs enough money to cover a first month’s rent and security deposit for an apartment. Or they need help reuniting with a relative. The pilot so far has shown that 70 percent of people who received “rapid response” were stabilized in housing within 10 days, city officials said.
Updating the outreach work at shelters could have significant impact, considering 85 percent of the city’s homeless population uses shelters.
“How does the program need to deepen, beyond just providing them a meal and a place to stay overnight?” Conner asked.
Marlo Torres’ friends say she doesn’t look the same. The stress that creased her 51-year-old face and tightened her jaw has smoothed since she moved into an apartment at The Delores Project.
For nine years, after leaving an abusive relationship in a hurry with nowhere to go, she slept in homeless shelters, Denver streets, and sometimes, an RTD bus overnight. She felt like she always had one eye open, ready for trouble. “I’ve seen women take the cots apart and beat each other with them,” Torres said.
Last week, though, Torres bought a coffee pot. She’s also got pots and pans, a set of sheets and groceries so she can cook spaghetti and invite her friend Michelle over for dinner. “I literally had a backpack, and that’s all,” she said. “It’s amazing to not have to worry about a roof over my head.”
Torres lives in sunny one-bedroom with her Chihuahua mix named Charlie. She hops on the light-rail train a few steps from the apartment complex and then a bus to get to her job at Colorado Mills mall.
It’s the safest she has felt in years. When she steps out of her apartment to smoke first thing in the morning, the motion-sensored lights in the dark hallway flip on. She loves that a receptionist at the front door calls up to her apartment to ask whether she wants a visitor, instead of someone barging into her apartment.
Guests of the old, dilapidated Delores shelter, including Torres, were consulted in the building of the new shelter and apartment building. Most surprising to the architects, they requested a staff office in the center of the dormitories.
“For them, it is a matter of safety,” said Rossbert, with Shopworks Architecture. “For me, it feels like Big Brother is watching you. But that’s why the people living in these spaces should be telling us how to design them.”
The entire design is about empowerment. Residents have refrigerators and cubbies to store their groceries because “getting a say over what goes in your body is really empowering,” Rossbert said. Each bunk bed has its own reading lamp and power outlet, and each person gets a locked compartment to store their belongings when the shelter is closed during daytime hours.
“A big piece is people feeling empowered and having choice,” Rossbert said. “There is an incredible, beautiful outdoor space that people can choose to exist in, but there is also privacy. They often feel safer outside because that is what they are used to. They can sit outside but they can also go sit in the living room and look and know that outside is right there close to them.”
Delores, along with many other Coalition for the Homeless apartments that have opened in recent years, is “supported housing,” meaning on-site case managers help residents with substance abuse, mental health and any other of life’s issues. The goal is to help them stay housed.
The state needs to continue to invest more in those services to solve homelessness, said Stephanie Miller, CEO of Delores Project. “We can’t just say, ‘You’ve got an apartment! Good luck,’” she said.
Shopworks is studying various supporting-housing programs throughout Colorado and intends to come out with a best-practices report in the coming months. “It’s not just where the windows are placed,” Rossbert said. “It’s really thinking about big-picture things like dignity and joy and relationship and grounding and hope, and how you design those things into spaces.”
In Adams County, the housing authority — called Unison Housing Partners — stands as the last line of defense to prevent homelessness in a suburban county dealing with a squeezed housing market and influx of people who are homeless. Much like Denver, the newest residents of Thornton and other Adams County towns have high-paying jobs and compete for ever-increasing rent and home prices.
At the same time, the “criminalization” of homelessness in Denver — think camping bans and panhandling laws — are driving “homeless folks up the trails,” said Peter LiFari, housing authority director. The Irving Public Library in Westminster now hires a mobile shower and laundry truck that pulls up weekly to help people who hang out at the library during the day.
LiFari said the state needs to ramp up its efforts to prevent evictions, as in a “quadrupling” of rental assistance and other homeless prevention funds in order to help people keep their housing.
“The feds aren’t coming to our rescue,” said LiFari, whose office is attached to Adams County’s newest of 14 affordable housing complexes, called Alto. “We’re at a point where we need to have stabilization for at least a couple of generations because folks have had such toxic stress.”
He calls it “Americanized PTSD,” the stress that generations of the same families endure working multiple jobs to afford decent housing.
At Alto, on a hill on Federal Boulevard in Westminster, residents pay an adjusted percentage of market rate to live in a sunny complex with a gym, community meeting space and a light-rail station next door. One of the first residents moved in straight from his camper. Others are families with kids and two jobs.
LiFari is concerned that while Colorado is “super innovative” when it comes to solving homelessness, the national conversation about housing vouchers and subsidized units has become “demonized.”
“We’ve abdicated our responsibility when it comes to civic community,” he said. “We expect everybody to be able to compete. What we’ve found is that it’s not because you’re not working, it’s because we’re not keeping pace when it comes to cost of living.”