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Denver has the resources to ‘cure’ homelessness if the money is spent on proven solutions instead of sweeps – The Denver Post


Stuffing blankets, clothes and toiletries into a green canvas duffel bag, the 28-year-old had no idea where his twelfth move in four months would take him.

“We’ll probably move a block or more this way,” Sean said, nodding east with the steam of his breath blowing through the frigid March air that had hung over Denver for days.

Seven days earlier, the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure had notified Sean, his wife and the 12 other people living in tents on the sidewalk in the Five Points neighborhood of the date and time that a sweep scale of their homeless encampment would take place.

I met Sean, and several other men and women living on the streets of Denver, over a two-month period this spring, while reporting on the city’s homelessness issue for my graduation project. graduate studies in journalism at Harvard’s Extension School. Sean has requested that his last name not be used in this article.

At 4 a.m. on the day of the sweep, the banging of the temporary stainless steel fence erected at both ends of the block knocked Sean and a few other people down. Others were woken by Denver police outside their tents telling them they had to leave in just four hours.

Shrouded in the early morning darkness, people were packed with varying degrees of urgency. Sean didn’t want to leave a single item behind. “It’s too hard to start from scratch every time they move us,” he said. His 32-year-old wife wanted to sleep and didn’t care if they left with nothing. “She’s just tired of it all,” Sean said. Placing a few books inside a portable grill, he said, “I don’t blame her, but we just have to vacuum her up.”

Denver conducts multiple encampment sweeps each week despite complaints from advocates and homeless people.

“The whole process is so dehumanizing,” said Denver-based homelessness advocate John Staughton. “Just imagine how you would feel if you were woken up by the cops in the middle of the night and said you had a few hours to pack up everything you own and get out.”

According to Staughton, the fact that those forced to move out after an encampment sweep rarely have viable housing options adds insult to injury.

Sean and his wife met at a downtown camp five years ago and were married a few years later.

“We’re both drug addicts,” he said, “and we’re doing our best to deal with our addiction and mental health issues.”

According to Sean, living on the streets and having to move house every few weeks makes their recovery process more difficult.

“Ask any meth addict who has a roof over their head how hard it is to be clean,” he said, “and then ask them to imagine trying to get clean while living on the streets and being constantly uprooted.”

Mark, a resident housed at Five Points, was glad the camp was swept away. “Look, I get it,” he said, “not everyone can afford to put a roof over their head in Denver, but does that mean I have to put up with seeing human swear words on the sidewalk every day?”

Mark, who also asked that his surname not be used, said he did not understand why people living in encampments did not choose to stay in shelters instead. “I realize shelter isn’t the best,” he said, “but any roof over your head has got to be better than living in a tent on a city sidewalk.”

Kelsang Virya, a Buddhist nun and founder of Mutual Aid Monday, a Denver-based outreach organization, understands Mark’s perspective. “A roof over your head seems like the logical choice,” she said, “but there are many reasons why people don’t go to shelters.”

According to Virya, restrictive eligibility rules prevent many people from accessing shelters. “Many shelters require ID to log in,” she said, “but a good number of homeless people have lost their ID or had it stolen.” Other shelters require clients to be clean and sober before being admitted. “And that’s impossible for people in the grip of addiction who have no treatment options.”

Sean and his wife are not requesting accommodation services due to a lack of accommodation for couples. “Men and women have to go to different shelters,” he said, “and we don’t want to be separated.” Sean said his mental health issues also made shelters a less than ideal option for him. “The constant noise and everyone crammed into beds side by side is too much for me,” he said.

Beyond the restrictive rules and security concerns, Virya said, “The city just doesn’t have enough accommodation beds for everyone who needs them.

Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Volunteer Jesse Lyon with UC Health takes in information at the Denver Rescue Mission for the annual Point in Time survey Monday evening, Jan. 29, 2018 in Denver. The survey collects data that is used to inform HUD and provide a snapshot of the Denver metro area in a single night to help communities understand trends and meet the needs of people experiencing literal homelessness.

The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative reported in January that 32,233 people had accessed homelessness-related services or housing assistance at least once between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021 on any given night. Although it suspended the 2021 survey due to the coronavirus pandemic, MDHI reported that preliminary data from 2022 suggests that the number of unsheltered people has increased significantly over the past two years. According to city officials, there are approximately 2,100 shelter beds available each night.

Most experts agree that Denver is allocating enough dollars to its fight against homelessness. In November, the Common Sense Institute, a nonpartisan research organization dedicated to protecting and promoting Colorado’s economy, found that between government spending and charitable spending, Denver spent about half a billion for homelessness in 2020 and estimated that this number could skyrocket. to over $800 billion in 2022 if announced funding materializes.

The CSI determined that Denver spends between $41,679 and $104,201 per homeless person per year. By comparison, Denver spends $19,202 per student per year on public education according to the analysis, while rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Denver is $21,156 per year.

Experts say the problem is where and how the money for homeless people is spent.

Many point to a Housing First approach, in which permanent housing is offered without any treatment requirements, as the best investment. These programs have been shown to keep people in stable housing for longer periods of time than those with prerequisites and are less expensive, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

The City of Houston has reduced its homeless population by 63% since 2011 by implementing a housing-focused approach. Targeting homeless homeless people was a priority for public and private agencies that had come together to tackle the city’s growing problem. After determining that forcibly moving people from an encampment without providing them with viable housing alternatives was not working, Houston officials developed a homeless encampment response strategy that prioritizes connecting everyone in a camp with accommodation before it was ‘downgraded’. A 2021 report noted that the city’s non-punitive Housing First intervention resulted in more people being stably housed than encampment clearance and criminalization.

Terri Harris, a former homeless...

Christopher Lee, The New York Times

Terri Harris, a formerly homeless person who received a lease for a room in a low-rise complex, prepares a meal at the new home she shares with her daughter Blesit in Houston on May 12, 2022. Harris did not scored high enough on a “vulnerability index” to qualify for permanent housing, but she was eligible for what’s called rapid rehousing, which gave her a year’s rent – a year’s grace – to get back on your feet.

Through its 2016 Social Impact Bonds, Denver itself demonstrated the success of the Housing First approach.

According to the Urban Institute, most people permanently housed under the Social Impact Bonds program have reduced costly interactions with emergency services. Its analysis found that more than half of the total annual cost per person of the Housing First program was offset by cost reductions in other public services, including prison, drug rehabilitation and emergency health care.

The lack of affordable housing threatens Denver’s ability to replicate the program’s success. Meanwhile, the city continues to allocate millions of dollars to programs and services, like increasing the capacity of emergency shelters, that either don’t meet the needs of homeless people or have a long-lasting impact. term on homelessness. Additionally, despite ample evidence demonstrating the futility of sweeping homeless encampments without connecting people to guaranteed housing, Mayor Michael Hancock has repeatedly stated that sweeps will continue for health and welfare reasons. public safety. The mayor frequently describes the camps as “unsanitary” and “unsanitary” spaces that cannot last.

Painting the problem in broad strokes supports a narrative of dirty, dangerous and deplorable conditions that leaves a web of us against them; an intractable problem to deal with, not one we expect our leaders to solve. But homelessness is not a cancer that cannot be cured. Other city governments and nonprofits have found the remedy: housing. Atlanta achieved a 40% decrease in homelessness by emulating Houston’s approach. Denver has the resources to join their ranks. Prioritizing housing over punitive intervention is a necessary first step in achieving this.

With the help of friends, Sean and his wife were able to pack their gear just in time. “I don’t know where I’ll be tonight, but at least I’ll have all my stuff with me,” he said, watching a Bobcat tear down his neighbor’s stuff.

Folding up the electric blue tarp that had been placed over his tent, Sean said to me, “This town doesn’t care about us living on the streets. He understands why his housed neighbors might not want the encampments around, he said, but wonders why those people aren’t demanding the city do more to fix the problem.

“They can move us from every place we end up,” he said, “but we have to exist somewhere.”

Rhonda Hackett is a freelance writer at Castle Rock.

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