When John Parvensky helped start the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in 1985, he and other leaders trying to solve homelessness in Denver figured they could accomplish the job in five years.
They thought it was a matter of focusing on the increasing number of folks on the streets, mostly men and mostly with alcohol addictions, who weren’t getting help from the soup kitchens and the couple of overnight shelters that existed then, including the Denver Rescue Mission known for its neon “Jesus Saves” cross.
“The initial focus and our understanding was that it would be a five-year effort, and we’d be working our way out of a job,” said Parvensky, who recently announced his retirement after 37 years as head of the coalition.
The plan was to build a little medical clinic, with two exam rooms, and an emergency “shelter of last resort” to temporarily house and treat people who needed addiction and mental health care.
When, after five years, there were still people living on the streets of Denver, the coalition of several nonprofits mobilized under Mayor Federico Peña decided they needed five more years. And when 10 years passed, the team had arrived at a stark realization: Solving homelessness was far more complex than they had understood.
“It wasn’t until that 10th year when it became clear that the forces that were creating homelessness are much greater than our ability to stop them,” Parvensky said. “That’s when we started focusing on creating lasting solutions as opposed to temporary solutions. Ever since, it’s been a battle to try to convince people that we need to invest at a level necessary to solve the problem.”
Soon after, in 1995, the coalition moved beyond providing temporary, overnight shelter beds and toward opening its first apartments. Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb agreed to sell an old University of Denver law school building across from city hall to the coalition for $10. The following year, the Forum Apartments held its grand opening, with 100 tenants who paid no more than 30% of their income for rent. The apartments are still open and are undergoing a city-backed renovation.
Under Parvensky’s leadership, the coalition’s budget has grown to $100 million from $100,000 and its staff to 750 people from six. The organization now serves 22,000 people each year. It has built 20 housing developments with about 2,500 units, plus the Stout Street Health Center just north of downtown Denver that treats 15,000 patients each year.
Lately, Parvensky has led the coalition’s plan to buy abandoned motels on Colfax Avenue for additional housing and to create a recuperative care center for people who leave hospitals but have no home.
Parvensky announced this summer that he will step down after the coalition hires his successor, a process that could last a few months. He has plans to spend more time with his grandchildren, but also intends to keep advocating for homelessness solutions to city leaders, the business community and others.
The Colorado Sun recently talked to Parvensky, arguably the person who has most influenced how metro Denver deals with homelessness, about what’s changed in the past 37 years and how the state can move ahead without his leadership.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity.
The Colorado Sun: As you prepare to step down, homelessness in Denver is perhaps more visible than ever, thanks to the pandemic. How frustrating is this after working on the issue for more than three decades?
John Parvensky: There’s disappointment, in terms of all the effort that we put into this, and to see visibly the problem getting larger and even numerically the problem getting larger. The systems are stacked against these folks who really have the need for supportive housing and affordable housing.
So, if it weren’t for the fact that I know that we have not only housed tens of thousands of people over the 30-some years, that tonight we’re housing 4,500 households who otherwise would likely be competing for those spots in the shelters or on the streets, we would be much worse off than we are now. We can shine a light and recognize the progress that’s been made, and demonstrate that there are solutions to homelessness.
I talk about lasting solutions to homelessness and people say, “How can you say that when the number of people on the streets keeps increasing?” Well, we know the solutions that work. We need to figure out the macro solutions to keep people from falling into homelessness and to be able to invest at the scale necessary.
Sun: Is homelessness actually solvable?
Parvensky: There’s always been this tension between the need and what it takes to solve the need, with investment always trailing behind what was truly needed to address homelessness.
We know we can solve it on an individual basis and within the individual families, with the right approach. We know what works, even for the most complex and marginalized, vulnerable population, and that is housing and those wraparound services to address whatever issues may have led to their homelessness.
The same for families — if we’re able to get families into housing they can afford, and be able to step in when there’s a crisis. They’re living in a state of perpetual crises, whether it’s a child that is sick and they don’t have health care for them, or they can’t find child care so they can get a job, or maybe it’s a domestic violence cycle. But the common denominator is that housing is the solution to homelessness.
The investment is never enough to actually come close to solving the problem. That’s why we’re seeing more and more people on the streets. The solutions that used to be there, affordable housing with these wraparound services, just aren’t sufficient to meet the growing need that we’re seeing as the affordable housing stock declines.
(NOTE: Denver’s “social impact bond” program, a public-private partnership that sent outreach workers from the coalition to the streets to find hundreds of people who were known as frequent users of emergency departments and the jail, “countered the narrative that people just want to be on the streets,” Parvensky said.
Of the first 250 people found and offered free housing, only one said no. Three years later, 77% of people were still in housing.)
Sun: How have attitudes toward homelessness evolved during your tenure?
Parvensky: Initially, there was a fair amount of positive charitable response to homelessness. We were involved with the original Comic Relief fundraisers that were nationwide efforts to raise money to support what was then seen as a novel expansion of homelessness. Over time, we’ve seen that kind of support wane a little bit and then come back into focus with targeted efforts. Around 2000, we saw a shift away from more of a religious and nonprofit focus to a recognition that the government had to play a role and that the whole community had to play a role.
Now, we’re seeing a pushback that this is not a systemic problem but personal issues — the whole “why don’t they just get a job” response. COVID brought new resources to address both affordable housing and homelessness, but at the same time, it brought this wave of new folks who needed those resources.
Sun: Denver, along with many other cities, launched an infamous, 10-year plan to solve homelessness in 2005, under former mayor and now U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper. Why didn’t it work?
Parvensky: Many of those plans failed, including Denver’s, because they never provided the public funding that was needed to actually implement the plan. And the plan was purposely understated in terms of what was needed because they thought the price tag would be more than what people could stand.
The plan was initially funded by charitable foundations with public support. In Denver’s example, the 10-year plan in Year 7 called for a dedicated source of revenue to fund ongoing implementation of the plan. Well, by the time Year 7 came along, the mayor was in the governor’s office and nobody wanted to raise taxes to address homelessness, and so there was not the resource to implement the plan as initially outlined.
It took us another 10 to 15 years before we were able to get a public measure on the ballot to get Denver citizens to at least approve targeted sales tax revenue to address homelessness. It’s been kind of an ongoing struggle to get the public and private investment necessary to stop the problem.”
Sun: What did homelessness efforts look like in Denver in the mid-1980s compared to today?
Parvensky: We had the historical shelters. The Salvation Army and Denver Rescue Mission have been around for 125 years and were really focusing on what we had typically seen — the alcoholic, homeless, transient population. And mostly what they did was overnight shelter, a lot of preaching and looking at salvation as a way of helping people get back on their feet. There wasn’t a lot of health care.
The “health care for the homeless” movement, which we were one of the first 19 cities to participate in, was really a public health initiative focused on addressing unmet health and mental health and addiction needs. Over time, we’ve continued to try to take the burden off of the Denver Health system and public emergency room resources by providing more appropriate primary care, and trying to keep people out of the hospital, keeping them out of the emergency room, saving the city and saving those institutions money. That’s been a thing that we’ve continued to demonstrate: If you invest in the solutions, you actually save money. And you have an improved quality of life, not only for the individual, but for the community itself.
Sun: How much of the latest spike in homelessness is due to the housing market?
Parvensky: The challenge has been that the cost of housing has far outpaced the ability of too many people in our community to afford it.
All along in the background has been the boom and bust of the housing market. And we’ve seen that even when Denver was a relatively affordable city, we had people who still couldn’t afford housing. Still, it was a lot easier to get people back into housing and keep them in housing.
But with the escalating housing crisis that we’ve seen over the last five to 10 years, with Denver becoming one of the least affordable cities in the country, we’ve only seen the pressures of homelessness increase. There’s such a competition for the existing affordable housing, people with the greatest needs, those with health and mental health issues, addictions, those who can’t work, those who have a criminal record, those with bad credit, they’re basically screened out of affordable housing to make way for folks who don’t have those challenges. So more people are falling into homelessness as rents go up, and the pathway out of homelessness is that much more challenging.
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