Colorado has more money than ever to spend on solving homelessness, as well as the most comprehensive data to date about how many people need services.
Still, the crisis is expected to get worse before it gets better, as the total economic impact of the global pandemic has yet to emerge and the array of solutions now in the works will take years to fully materialize, according to a panel of experts who met Friday in downtown Denver.
“We have a lot of catching up to do because this has been an unfunded crisis for so long,” said Cathy Alderman, communications director for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
Colorado has for a few years dedicated about $9 million in state funds for housing, adding about $45 million annually in 2019 through what’s called a vendor fee for affordable housing. Legislators also have tagged unclaimed property funds for affordable housing, although the law is activated only in certain years because of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. This year, the govern0r’s budget includes plans to spend $200 million on homelessness initiatives, thanks in part to one-time American Rescue Plan Act funding.
“But that’s not enough,” Alderman said. “The federal government certainly hasn’t kept up with the scale of the crisis across the country. And this one-time infusion of funds gives us a huge opportunity, but if we’re not planning for what happens at the end of it, I don’t know that we can make promises beyond it.”
The state Office of Homeless Initiatives, part of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, is seeking proposals from local governments to create a Denver regional navigation campus, a central spot for housing, food, therapy and other services. It’s also expected to begin work early next year on a “master plan” for a homeless recovery center in Watkins, east of Denver, where people living outdoors and in shelters would go to receive treatment and job training before getting help finding long-term housing.
“We have an unprecedented amount of funding coming our way,” said Kristin Toombs, director of the state Office of Homeless Initiatives.
At the city level, meanwhile, Denver’s Office of Housing Stability in its three years of existence has overseen the addition of 2,000 affordable homes and 225 supportive housing apartments, which come with mental health, substance abuse and other services to help people stay housed. The office, in conjunction with other organizations, has 1,500 housing units in the pipeline, said Britta Fisher, executive director.
The city’s Office of Housing Stability budget for housing and homelessness is now at $270 million, up from about $28 million a few years ago.
The boost comes in part because Denver voters approved a 0.25% sales tax for homelessness passed in 2020 and reapproved it this year.
To better gauge the scope of the problem, the state in the past few years expanded its “homeless management information system,” which keeps track of how many people need services and what kind. People who are homeless or at risk of losing housing are entered into the system with a unique identification number, tied to their name. The system allows service providers in Denver to see that a person who was staying in a Denver shelter is now getting services in Grand Junction, for example.
More than 100 nonprofits and government agencies in the seven-county Denver metro area enter data into the system, including about 90% of all shelters.
About 32,000 people in a year seek out homeless services across Colorado, according to the system. State officials are beginning to use it, too, to determine which programs are working and adjust investments in homeless prevention, Toombs said.
“We can’t help you if we don’t know you exist,” she said. “It also enables us to really make sure that we have an understanding of how the programs are doing, so not just the need, but the impact of that work.”
The goal is that all service providers, in all parts of the state, will use the shared system, said Jamie Rife, executive director of the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative, which oversees the system. “It allows us to really see in real time what we actually need to be planning for, and that is incredibly important,” she said.
The same morning as the panel discussion, a group of people who are homeless or recently were homeless spoke out at a city-organized homeless advisory meeting. Members of Housekeys Action Network Denver, an advocacy group with members who have lived outdoors and had their belongings taken in city sweeps of encampments, said they are grateful for the influx of funding but that they also want immediate action.
“They didn’t address any of the immediate needs that are going on right now,” said Ana Miller, who was homeless for three years until getting an apartment through a voucher program a few months ago. “They’re still sweeping people when it’s way too cold to be sweeping. We still have one of the largest lack of bathroom access in the entire country. I mean, there’s nowhere to use the restroom.”
Miller wore a black sweatshirt with the words “They should not (expletive) take our tent.”
Teri Washington, who for years lived in Denver shelters until getting housing six months ago through the Coalition for the Homeless, said one of the hardest parts of living on the streets was limited access to running water and toilets, since many of the nonprofits that help the homeless lock their doors at 7 p.m. Also, Washington said, she felt like she was regularly told that she didn’t fit the criteria for certain housing or jobs programs, and that many who are homeless can’t qualify for programs because they lost their identification, sometimes during a city camp cleanup.
“We really want water,” she said. “We want to be able to bathe. We want to be able to maintain a daily life, like when we were in a home. But we have so many restrictions. I’ve never done drugs, and the guidelines were strict for me.”