Homelessness in Denver: The Cold, Hard Facts Behind Six Myths

A decade ago, Denver set out to “end homelessness” through the Denver's Road Home initiative — but the city has as many homeless individuals today as it did ten years ago. In the metro area, over 6,100 homeless men, women, and children are facing another winter without permanent housing.

Within the past few months, their plight has been highlighted by a series of dramatic events: a crackdown on encampments near the Denver Rescue Mission, a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the homeless in federal court, and escalating enforcement of the city's camping ban. 

With winter weather upon us, it’s time for some cold, hard facts about homelessness in Denver. Here are six of the most prominent myths, and the reality:

1) Legalizing pot has caused more people to be homeless

One myth unique to Denver is that the state's legalization of marijuana has resulted in a surge of homelessness. In October 2014, The O'Reilly Factor aired a segment called “Stoned Homeless in Colorado,” in which various homeless individuals were showcased as perpetual potheads. Outlets such as Yahoo! News have also jumped on this bandwagon with articles like "Pot Seen as Reason for Rise in Denver Homeless." The implied takeaway from such reports is that the availability of recreational weed has inspired drug habits that cause individuals to lose financial stability and their homes.

As Westword contributor Kristin Pazulski reported in 2014, these stories are largely false. Yes, a percentage of homeless individuals have told shelters that they moved to Colorado to use marijuana for medicinal purposes, but they only account for a fraction of out-of-state transplants — most of the homeless who moved to Colorado report that they were looking for work.

Former Westword staffer Joel Warner also wrote a feature story for the International Business Times in which he found that the percentage of out-of-state newcomers who tell homeless shelters that they came to Colorado because of marijuana ranges from 20 to 30 percent. 

But when it comes to the homeless who already live in Denver – the majority of this city's homeless population – pot was never the cause of losing their homes. "Using marijuana does not cause homelessness," Kim Easton, CEO of Urban Peak, told Westword. The primary causes of homelessness remain high rent, lack of jobs and mental-health issues. 

2) Most people who are homeless are so because it's their fault

Personal responsibility is a bedrock belief in this country, rooted in the puritan work ethic espoused by our nation's founders. As a result, many Americans blame individuals who fall into poverty for lacking drive or initiative. NBC News recently reported that this number seems to be decreasing from its historic levels, although 44 percent of Americans still consider poverty to be caused by a poor work ethic.

More often than not, they are wrong. In fact, most who become homeless have fallen under circumstances largely outside their control.

In 2015, the Denver Foundation released a report that compared the public's perceptions of what causes homelessness to its real causes. Using a representative survey of 812 metro Denver residents, the foundation discovered that homelessness is much more common than many believe. One in ten respondents had once been homeless themselves, and one in five had come close.

When comparing the real causes of homeless to perceived causes, the Denver Foundation found that economic pressures, including a lack of available jobs and rising rent costs, are far more common culprits than things like substance abuse or lack of personal responsibility.

3) Most of the homeless are single men living on the streets

The stereotypical image of a homeless individual is that of a scruffy man panhandling on the streets. This is not surprising, given that this is the most visual example of homelessness — even if some of those panhandling are not homeless at all. Results from the Denver Foundation's study confirm this myth, noting that 66 percent of the respondents believed single men to be disproportionately homeless as compared to any other group.

But this notion does not align with reality, even according to Denver's Road Home, the city's umbrella organization responsible for coordinating homeless services. It turns out that the majority of the homeless are actually in families, and most of them do not live on the streets.

Additional findings from the Denver Foundation's study offer data about where the homeless sleep:

The results suggest that homelessness is more pervasive than many realize, and includes children and individuals of both sexes who may not appear to be homeless, but lack housing. Only a fraction of homeless actually live full-time on the streets.

4) Most of the homeless aren't looking for jobs

A tangential myth associated with personal responsibility is that most homeless people aren't trying to escape their situation — that the homeless tend to be freeloaders who aren't interested in finding a job.

Again, the facts paint a different picture. According to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, which conducts an annual homeless survey that reached 3,978 individuals this year, 23 percent of respondents reported that they or their families had received some money from working during the month preceding the survey.

Moreover, 8.4 percent of all surveyed had moved to Denver from other cities or states specifically to find work.

Employment-seeking services from organizations like Urban Peak and the St. Francis Center are in high demand among homeless individuals who want to find work. Other organizations, like the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, provide jobs directly to the homeless. The website for its program, Renaissance Works, offers this explanation for why it can be difficult for the homeless to find jobs: 
“Homeless individuals without fixed addresses or stable living conditions face significant challenges in securing and maintaining jobs. Many homeless individuals who seek employment also lack transferable job skills or a consistent work history and are often overlooked in this highly competitive employment market.”
5) Providing taxpayer-supported housing to the homeless is pointless

Here's another myth: If homeless people were irresponsible enough to lose their homes, giving them permanent housing on the taxpayers' dime won't change anything. Why should they deserve it?

This is a common reaction to the “housing first” philosophy, which posits that it is more effective to provide housing for the homeless than focus on shelters or rehabilitative services. But opponents think that giving away homes is a perilous proposition. As one blogger named Michael Ian, who used to be homeless, points out:
"In their minds, helping the homeless acquire housing prior to being "fixed" appears only to enable them to continue to "use drugs and alcohol." This mindset, however, is based purely on stereotypes and misconceptions — and not actual reality."

Indeed, a national campaign called 100,000 Homes, which has provided housing to 100,000 homeless people over four years, has had an 80 percent success rate keeping people off the streets. The organization was founded on the principle that it is too difficult for individuals to combat addictions, mental or physical health problems, or find steady employment while simultaneously being homeless. 

And here in Denver, the housing-first philosophy has its own success stories. At his 2014 State of the State, Governor John Hickenlooper name-checked Michael George, who'd spent nearly a third of his life living on Denver's streets before being the recipient of subsidized housing. George is now sober and works at the Aurora Mental Health Center.

6) The camping ban hasn't been hard on homeless, as evidenced by the low number of  arrests

Denver's urban camping ban has proved one of the most controversial decisions of Mayor Michael Hancock's tenure. By banning covered sleeping on sidewalks and within Denver's public areas, many say, the ban has effectively criminalized homelessness. Even so, the ban maintains plenty of supporters between the mayor, various councilmembers and Denver businesses. These supporters tend to cite the low number of arrests made by the Denver Police Department as proof that the ban hasn't been harsh.

But data obtained by Westword through Colorado Open Record Act requests shows that enforcement of the camping ban has reached historic highs in 2016. The first eight months of 2016 represent over 40 percent of all enforcement actions since June 2012. And Westword discovered that Denver usually issues verbal “move on” orders and written warnings, as opposed to arrests and citations.

Additionally, in 2012, the year the camping ban was introduced, Denver Homeless Out Loud conducted a survey of 512 individuals that found:
  • 66 percent of respondents who used to sleep downtown had moved to more unsafe and hidden locations
  • 83 percent were asked by police to “move along” without being offered alternative services. 
  • 40 percent have tried to get into shelters more often, but 63 percent say the shelters are more crowded and harder to get into than they used to be. 

Leslie Foster, CEO of The Gathering Place, a daytime drop-in center for women, children and transgender individuals, told Westword: "I think it's important to note that the fact that no one received a ticket isn't necessarily a sign of success. This is the wrong metric. The police have a protocol, as they should. They approach someone and ask them to move along. If the person moves along, no ticket is issued. No services are provided, and nothing has really changed in anyone's life; they have just 'moved along.' Success is seen in housing, not in the lack of tickets issued."