Has Denver's Homeless Situation Gone to Pot?

Jesse Watters visited the very Mile High City for The O'Reilly Factor.
Jesse Watters visited the very Mile High City for The O'Reilly Factor.

When Jesse Watters, a correspondent for The O'Reilly Factor, visited Denver last month, he interviewed a number of colorful homeless characters about marijuana. He spoke briefly with a guy who said he was "medicating" but couldn't name his ailment, and another guy who said he's been smoking dope since he was a kid and spends his day perusing Facebook on a library computer. He encountered a cat named Kush lounging in his owner's arms, and a fellow named Kush who was smoking in a park.

"Watters' World: Stoned Homeless in Colorado" was just the latest national story to suggest that Colorado's legalization of marijuana increased its homeless population. This summer, Yahoo trumpeted, "Pot Seen as Reason for Rise in Denver Homeless," and the Huffington Post pronounced, "Marijuana Legalization Could Be Causing Increase in Homeless Young People in Denver: Officials." As the Washington Post pointed out in July, the headlines implied "a city filling up with drug addicts whose habit put them on the streets." But is that the reality?

See also: Denver Set Out to End Homelessness Ten Years Ago -- Is the Finish Line in Sight?

Those headlines don't convey what this city's providers of services for the homeless -- many of whom were quoted in those articles -- are actually experiencing. While they agree that Denver has seen a recent increase in homeless individuals, these people aren't homeless because of pot use -- nor are they flocking here to party.

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"Using marijuana does not cause homelessness," says Kimberle Easton, CEO of Urban Peak, which serves homeless youth between the ages of 15 and 24. She was interviewed by Watters, and Urban Peak's deputy director was quoted in both the Yahoo and Huffington Post articles. "These news-flash headlines that are like, 'Colorado has legalized marijuana and it's causing homelessness' -- I'm like, no, it's not," she says.

The people Watters chose to highlight in his video makes it look as though Denver's homeless population is full of potheads and slackers with a permanent pot-infused cloud over their heads. But Easton and other providers suggest that the marijuana-related reasons that people are moving here are more practical: to use marijuana medicinally, to work in the marijuana industry or to avoid the legal repercussions of possessing marijuana. Easton says that many of the youth who come to Urban Peak use pot medicinally to address physical and mental-health issues as a result of intense trauma, either at the homes they left or during their time on the streets.

Tom Luehrs of the St. Francis Center.
Tom Luehrs of the St. Francis Center.

Tom Luehrs, executive director of the St. Francis Center day shelter, says it's not surprising that many of his clients use marijuana medicinally, since disabilities and mental illness can lead to homelessness. "We shouldn't just see it as people coming to the state to use marijuana," he says. "A big reason [people become homeless] is because of a disability, and those individuals often choose to medicate using marijuana. Making the connections there are helpful for people to understand the population growth."

For example, some of the people who moved here to work in the marijuana industry wound up on the streets because they found they didn't meet the requirements: A prospective retail employee has to be a Colorado resident; cannot have had controlled-substance felony convictions in the past ten years; and cannot have an outstanding penalty related to a felony (i.e., all fines must be paid and all time served) in the past five years.

And both recreational and medicinal users move to Denver to avoid the risk of criminal charges for possession in other states. "For our youth or young adults, [they think,] 'I use marijuana anyway, I'm homeless anyway, so why not be someplace where I'm taking one risk off my table?' -- which is being arrested for being in possession," Easton points out.

So far, the evidence of the connection between homelessness and marijuana is largely anecdotal. A Point-in-Time study of the homeless population is conducted every January; this year's research was done just 27 days after retail sales of recreational pot began in Colorado, and the survey didn't include any questions about marijuana. Metropolitan State University of Denver's Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology has just launched a study looking at the outcomes of the legalization of recreational marijuana, which will include research on the number of homeless people coming to Colorado to work in the industry. But the research could take one or two years to complete, according to assistant professor Rebecca Trammell.

Providers have done their own informal surveys. Urban Peak, for example, saw an increase of fifty to sixty youths a day this summer over last summer. Between May and July, the number of youths 21 and older (which means they could legally buy and possess recreational marijuana) arriving at Urban Peak was 153 percent higher than in previous years. "Anecdotally, we have been collecting info because we've had such an increase of new youth seeking services from April," says Easton. "I would say one in three of the youth who were new to Urban Peak during that time period said they were here from somewhere else because of the legalization of marijuana."

Other nonprofits have seen similar numbers, she adds: "All of us in the homeless-service world have experienced an extreme increase in need for services due to the legalization of marijuana."

Since recreational marijuana was legalized, the St. Francis Center has had about fifty additional individuals walk through its doors each day, Luehrs says. That means his small facility is now seeing an average of 780 individuals a day. "When we interview new people, the number-one reason they give us for coming to Denver is to find a job because the economy is good, and the second reason people give is because marijuana is legal," he adds.

For whatever reason, the numbers are growing -- but the funds are not. Easton says that she needed more workers to conduct one-on-one meetings with youth this summer, but didn't have the money to hire more. So she has been actively pushing for homeless services to be considered for a portion of the state's retail marijuana tax money.

"A lot of money was invested by the industry to lobby, advertise and to promote the citizens of the state of Colorado to approve this amendment," Easton says. "There's nothing we can do about it at this point. However, what we do have control over is the projected increase in sales-tax revenue from the industry."

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the state collected $14.7 million in retail marijuana sales tax; the Colorado Department of Human Services, which manages the distribution of homeless funding, will use $4.5 million for youth prevention programs, a survey on kids' health, disorder treatment services for adolescents and pregnant women, and marijuana-abuse-specific training for the Division of Child Welfare.

The state has collected another $15 million since July, and homeless-service providers are hoping that they'll see some of it in order to help with the unexpected consequences of marijuana. "It would be nice if some was directed this way," says Luehrs.

For another view, here's the Watters World piece:

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