The housing crisis in Denver is especially acute for vulnerable populations. Overlooked during sweeps of homeless encampments or cries from millennials who can't afford to live here are the elderly. In addition to problems that plague this demographic in general, such as illness and fixed incomes, Denver's aging population is facing the challenge of property taxes that have skyrocketed in recent years, as well as a limited number of public-housing options and their lengthy wait lists.
About one in five homeless individuals in Denver are seniors, a number that is expected to grow.
Three years ago, Alison Joucovsky was a geriatric social worker at Jewish Family Service; she'd been working in the field for a dozen years. Tasked with connecting the elderly to social services and helping them cope with loss and health issues, Joucovsky was especially tuned in to their needs. And the biggest need she started to notice was housing.
"On my phone all day were seniors saying [public-housing options] had a four-year wait list," she says. "I was like, oh, my God, we need better solutions!"
In 2016 she started Sunshine Home Share Colorado, a nonprofit that connects applicants 55 years and older who have extra space in their homes with renters of all ages. Not only do the renters provide extra income, but they sometimes offer a sense of security for their "landlords." Inventory is not an issue; according to Joucovsky, there are 55,000 seniors 65 years and older with space in Denver, and over 200,000 in the five counties that the nonprofit serves.
Sunshine connected five seniors with roommates its first year, working with an all-volunteer staff. But in 2018, Joucovsky will struggle to reach her goal of fourteen: She says that the volunteer model has run its course, and without funding, either from the government or private donors, Sunshine will have to close.
"All the money in the state and pretty much the city currently tied to affordable housing is tied to building things and fixing things," she says. "This is thinking outside the box. ... We don't have to build or fix anything."
When she pitches her nonprofit to city officials, she tells them it's low-hanging fruit, an obvious and easy solution that might serve a small population but will have a large impact. "Half our homeowners are in their nineties," she explains. "If they need to land on Medicaid and go into a nursing home, you're talking about $72,000 in Medicaid dollars. Keeping them in their homes has a big impact." It also saves the City of Denver the thousands of dollars that it takes to care for an individual experiencing homelessness.
Joucovsky says some of the city's solutions to housing, such as accessory housing units, aren't realistic for seniors, who might not be able to afford to build another home, even with financial assistance. "A low-income senior cannot afford to build an accessory unit," she says. "I'm a little baffled."
Sunshine's volunteer staff conducts background checks on applicants, who are also required to provide referrals; it's a time-consuming process that isn't a quick fix for people who find themselves homeless overnight, but a long-term solution meant to create lasting relationships. It's also why Sunshine doesn't carry a wait list.
"At this point I'm starting to get a couple calls a week from a senior who's now in their car because their landlord has double their rent, it's more than they can afford on their Social Security and they don't know where to go," Joucovsky says.